Before The United States Began.
American Name Changes are not just a new thing. People all over the world have been changing their names since, well…for a very, very long time. It’s certainly true for Americans going back way before this was America and for the entire time our country has been called the United States of America.
Native Americans, in fact, have a tradition of American Name Changes during a person’s life, according to Brooke (Wompsi’kuk Skeesucks) a Mohegan in a 2011 account by Elisabeth Pearson Waugaman, Ph.D. “Children receive names that are descriptive, they may be given new names at adolescence, and again as they go through life according to what their life experiences and accomplishments are.” Hearing that sentiment is not the first time I’ve marveled at how sensible Native American customs have been. A Native American most modern Americans have heard of, Pocahontas, was born as Matoaka and was later known as Rebecca Rolfe.
Modern America, and by that I mean The United States of America, is now an almost perfect melting pot of people drawn here at vastly different times and for wildly different reasons. As countless immigrants have come to this country, large scale American Name Changes (“Americanizations”) have taken place. A large portion of immigrants from every corner of the earth have taken an “American Name” for themselves upon settling in here. In this way, many a Seamus has become Sean or John; many an Alejandro became Alex or Alan; Slazak became Zack; Grigorii became George or Gregory; Jia Sha became Jessie;Yoo Jin became Eugene; Aylin became Eileen; etc., etc., etc.
All these American Name Changes have come about so that the new arrivals can, in their opinion, more easily fit quickly into the American work force, social systems, interact with bureaucracies, enter into transactions, participate in schooling and politics and philanthropy, and on, and on, and on. These new Americans Change their Names to feel “more American”.
To be fair, there is a counter trend to Americanization in American Name Changes too. Many descendants of immigrants have, upon learning about their heritage, adopted a New Name respecting their lineage, their faith, or their cultural foundations. And those reverse Name Changes have recovered generations-old family names, revered religious names, or aspirational names molded from ancient family traditions.
A person’s Name isn’t a permanent fixture. It’s fluid. Even if not in one’s lifetime, but over many generations almost no one’s Names remain fixed because of personal choice or fortune, by marriage or inspiration.
The 2 Waves of American Name Changes
There have been 2 iconic periods of widespread American Name Changes. One is famous, the other infamous.
According to the History of Ellis Island, found at ellisisland.org, from 1892 to 1954, over twelve million immigrants entered the United States through the portal of Ellis Island, New York. Many of those millions had their Names Changed upon entry into America, not necessarily at the hands of the Ellis Island personnel but rather due to Name lists compiled by personnel of the passenger ship companies that brought them to this country. Others, like my Grandfather and his family who landed at Ellis Island in the spring of 1903, entered America with their European Names. Then, as that young family began to work, go to school and move west, they found themselves in Detroit in 1914. There, to better assimilate, the entire family went to court and Legally got American Name Changes. My grandfather’s First, Middle and Last Names were all Legally Changed. In this way, my grandfather’s family (and therefore my family) did the American Name Changes that so many millions of Americans did in the Ellis Island era.
The other iconic wave of American Name Changes was the infamous one. It was during America’s slave period, which spanned from the late 16th century until the Civil War ended in 1865 and the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 quickened the ending of that period.
One of the consequences of these centuries of slavery is that the Names of slaves, after enslavement, were lost to them in favor of a Name given to them by their owners. In time, over many generations, the ancestral Names of the slaves were largely, if not entirely lost to those who were enslaved. In the slavery period, slaves were often given names according to the whim of their owner or according to the work they performed. Once freed, slaves often adopted last names of their prior owners. They also took names of Americans they admired such as Washington or Jefferson. Sometimes they took words they liked as their names, such as freedom or Freeman Other took names they felt would suit them in their lives after slavery. In the many decades that have followed, many ancestors of those slaves have changed names again to recapture a pre-slavery name, or to establish their own American identity in keeping with the future they now see for themselves. Still others take a name to reflect a spiritual or admired ethnic connection. And others make new American Name Changes for nearly every sort reason imaginable. There can be no getting away from the fact that slavery resulted in a dramatic (some would say cataclysmic) era of American Name Changes. Many of the forced American Name Changes from slavery are still in use to this day.
In 21st century America, American Name Changes are alive and well. Hundreds of thousands of people in every corner of the United States go to court and Petition for Legal Name Change, year after year after year. Immigrants are still pouring into the U.S., and many of those choose a new American Name for their new life in America. Others down the immigrant generational ladder might opt for American Name Changes to honor some part of their pre-immigrant past. Still others just want to take the name they feel will let them make the most of their own future.
Name Change is a strong and time-tested American tradition. It doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon.