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A Note from the Editor: Ancestral Name Changes

(A Note from the Editor) Permanent link
Lynn Betlock

Lynn Betlock

Last week’s survey question, about whether readers had stories of ancestral names changed by immigration officials, was formulated because I wanted to find out what people believed about family name changes, particularly in regard to the widely-held perception that immigration officials rather arbitrarily changed names at ports of entry.


I discovered that that perception is perhaps not so widely held among readers of the Weekly Genealogist, as a number of readers wrote in to say that the assumption that names were changed by immigration officials was probably not valid and that the survey question was perpetuating a myth. Glenn Sampson of Windsor, Connecticut, pointed out that a better question would have listed the number of ways in which names might have been changed (e.g., "changed by my ancestors themselves," "changed by town officials or census takers," "changed by immigration officials," or, "I don't know how it got changed").


Since my own surname is one that was changed, probably during the lifetime of my immigrant great-great-grandfather, I’ve long been interested in surname changes. When I discovered as a middle schooler that Betlock had once been Betlach, I was fascinated, and that discovery probably helped fuel my interest in family history. My ancestor Josef Betlach emigrated from Bohemia in the 1870s, and settled in Steele County, Minnesota. At some point he, or perhaps only his sons, adopted Betlock, presumably because that spelling reflected how the name sounded to English-speaking Americans. As far as I know, only our particular branch of the family adopted Betlock. For me as a genealogist, the difference in spelling has been a handy way to separate descendants of my great-great-grandfather from more distant kinfolk. 


A number of readers shared stories of their family surnames having been changed by the immigrants themselves, usually to sound more “American” or, as with my case, to have the spelling better match the name’s pronunciation. No one wrote in with a family story of how a name was changed at a port of entry, documented or undocumented. Last week’s survey asked whether readers had a family story of how an ancestor’s name was changed by an immigration official. The results show that, among the respondents, 12% have documented proof of an ancestral name change and 12% have an unverified family legend of an ancestral name change.


Two interesting articles explore the myths and realities of ancestral name changes: “American Names: Declaring Independence” by Marian L. Smith; and “They Changed our Name at Ellis Island” by Donna Przecha.

Posted by Jean Powers at 03/16/2012 02:53:30 PM | 

Beware of descendents changing ancestral names! A number of relatives insisted our Hindorff ancestors name was originally "von Hindorff." Document research could find no such name. Pursuing "Hindorff" however eventually found that Nancy Vaughn, who married P.G. Hindorff, proudly referred to herself as Nancy Vaughn Hindorff and descendents wrote it down the way it sounded: Nancy von Hindorff! Well, it sounded good!
Posted by: T Langford ( Email ) at 3/17/2012 2:47 AM

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