When we think of tracing our family tree, we often envision following our family surname back thousands of years to the first bearer of the name. In our neat and tidy scenario, each successive generation bears the same surname - spelled exactly the same way in each and every record - until we reach the dawn of man.
In reality, however, the last name we bear today may have existed in its present form for only a few generations. For the majority of human existence, people were identified only by a single name. Hereditary surnames (a surname passed down from a father to his children) were not in common use in the British Isles prior to about the fourteenth century. Patronymic naming practices, in which a child's surname was formed from the given name of his father, were in use throughout much of Scandinavia well into the 19th century-resulting in each generation of a family bearing a different last name.
Why Did Our Ancestors Change Their Names?
Tracing our ancestors back to the point where they first acquired surnames can also be a challenge as a name's spelling and pronunciation may have evolved over centuries. This makes it unlikely that our present family surname is the same as the original surname bestowed on our long distant ancestor. The current family surname may be a slight spelling variation of the original name, an anglicized version, or even a completely different surname.
Illiteracy - The further back we take our research, the more likely we are to encounter ancestors who couldn't read and write. Many didn't even know how their own names were spelled, only how to pronounce them. When they gave their names to clerks, census enumerators, clergymen, or other officials, that person wrote the name the way that it sounded to him. Even if our ancestor did have the spelling memorized, the person recording the information may not have bothered to ask how it should be spelled.
Example: The German HEYER has become HYER, HIER, HIRE, HIRES, HIERS, etc.
Simplification - Immigrants, upon arrival in a new country, often found that their name was difficult for others to spell or pronounce. In order to better fit in, many chose to simplify the spelling or otherwise alter their name to relate it more closely to the language and pronunciations of their new country.
Example: Yhe German ALBRECHT becomes ALBRIGHT, or the Swedish JONSSON becomes JOHNSON.
Necessity - Immigrants from countries with alphabets other than Latin had to transliterate them, producing many variations on the same name.
Example: The Ukranian surname ZHADKOWSKYI became ZADKOWSKI.
Mispronunciation - Letters within a surname were often confused due to verbal miscommunication or heavy accents.
Example: Depending upon the accents of both the person speaking the name and the person writing it down, KROEBER could become GROVER or CROWER.
Desire to Fit In - Many immigrants changed their names in some way to assimilate into their new country and culture. A common choice was to translate the meaning of their surname into the new language.
Example: The Irish surname BREHONY became JUDGE.
Desire to Break with the Past - Emigration was sometimes prompted in one way or another by a desire to break with or escape the past. For some immigrants, this included ridding themselves of anything, including their name, which reminded them of an unhappy life in the old country.
Example: Mexicans fleeing to America to escape the revolution often changed their name.
Dislike of Surname - People forced by governments to adopt surnames which were not a part of their culture or were not of their choosing would often shed themselves of such names at the first opportunity.
Example: Armenians forced by the Turkish government to give up their traditional surnames and adopt new "Turkish" surnames would revert back to their original surnames, or some variation, upon emigration/escape from Turkey.
Fear of Discrimination - Surname changes and modifications can sometimes be attributed to a desire to conceal nationality or religious orientation in fear of reprisal or discrimination. This motive constantly appears among the Jews, who often faced anti-Semitism.
Example: The Jewish surname COHEN was often changed to COHN or KAHN, or the name WOLFSHEIMER shortened to WOLF.
Could the Name Have Been Changed at Ellis Island?
Stories of immigrants fresh off the boat having their names changed by overzealous immigration officials at Ellis Island are prevalent in many families. This is almost certainly no more than a story, however. Despite the long-standing myth, names were not actually changed at Ellis Island. Immigration officials only checked the people passing through the island against the records of the ship on which they arrived-records which were created at the time of departure, not arrival.