A common misconception about name changes is that they were made at ports of arrival, such as Ellis Island, and were the result of a miscommunication between the immigrant and the port official. Given that this is such an old and enduring “bubbe meise,” what did happen? This was on my mind the other day when a friend asked me if there are registers or indices of name changes that can be researched online.
Emigrants sometimes changed their names prior to departure. Others changed them sometime after arriving at their destinations or when they or their children entered the educational system in their new countries.
Immigrants were not required to undergo a legal process to change their names, and a variety of options were available to them. In English-speaking countries, such as the United States, Great Britain, and South Africa, if an individual's name was, for instance, Chatzkel Shulevich but he wanted to be known as Charlie Shool, he simply used that name. He may have changed his name for business purposes or to register his children for school. In non-English speaking countries, much the same occurred but with less frequency.
The major means of determining if a name had been changed is researching an immigrant’s naturalization papers. It is there that, very often, name changes were denoted with the phrase “prays name change to” or “prays his name be changed to” or "I hereby petition to have my name changed to". This can usually be found at the bottom of the page or in an inconspicuous spot on the naturalization record.
Two examples of this standardized process follow.
What is of interest is that Schloime Riven CHEIFETZ’s father, Meyer, was also naturalized but did not change his name at that time.
April 2, 1923 Schloime Riven CHEIFETZ, 311 Winton Street, Philadelphia, PA, a tailor, born October 10, 1894, Bazar, Russia, emigrated from Bremen on July 27, 1922, on George Washington, arrived NYC August 11, 1922. Wife Molly, born 1902, Chernobol, Russia; children: Nathan, 9/15/1920, Bazar, Russia, Hyman 11/25/1922, Philadelphia, PA. 5'6", fair complexion, blonde hair, blue eyes, bald and glasses; and prays change to Sam Shavitz.
Another example is an individual who made a completely different choice for his new name.
August 7, 1928 Chaim CHEIFETZ, 21 Waumbeck at Boston Rox, MA, born May 27, 1896, Ekaterinoslav, Russia, came to America from Southampton, October 20, 1922, arrived NYC, October 29, 1922; and prays his name be changed to Mitchell Chaffin.
If you look for Schloime Riven CHEIFETZ and Chaim CHEIFETZ in the 1930 Census under CHEIFETZ, you will not have any luck. You need to know that they had changed their names. Sure enough, Mitchell Chaffin is listed as a roomer in a Boston rooming house. By 1942, he is listed in the World War II Draft Registration as being from Dnepropetrovsk, Russia, and married. Sam Shavitz is not found in the 1930 Census, but he is listed in the World War II Draft Registration as being married and from Kiev, Russia.
If Mitchell Chaffin’s grandson (if he had one) took a DNA test to see if he was related to other CHAFFIN families, the results would be negative. He might guess that his grandfather changed his name to avoid the draft in Russia, yet no such reason was true.
It is critical that naturalization papers be obtained for your male immigrant ancestors. Not all, of course, will have changed their names, but many will have.
One of the newer means for locating full naturalization paperwork -- rather than just the naturalization card, which you may find on Ancestry.com -- is through Footnote.com, a subscription database. You can search the index for free, but a paid subscription is required to look at the record. I have not included all of the examples of where you can look for name change information, just the one that I have been using on a regular basis.