Sunday, April 16, 2017

Did my ancestor really have a middle name in 1608?

One of the issues that cause people to fail in getting a AncestryDNA leaf hint or record hint at Ancestry is the "middle name problem."

Right now I'm in the middle of writing my weekly genealogy column, part of my syndicated genealogy newspaper series, on consistent data entry into our genealogy databases and online trees.

While putting words on the computer screen, I reminded myself of one of my genealogy my pet peeves -- middle names in the 17th and 18th centuries. This is just one of the parameters that will cause a computerized match not to occur. I see a middle name in a 17th or 18th century person and I will move

But don't just trust my words on this subject, one of my cousins Bob W. Baird, wrote a great article on middle name usage on his website at

Here is an excerpt from cousin Bob's Genealogy Cabinet genealogy website.

"The use of two given names – a first name and a middle name – was essentially unknown in Europe until the late Middle Ages, and even then the practice was limited to a few distinct cultural groups.

"Middle names among English-speakers were essentially nonexistent until the mid-1600s, remained quite rare for another century or so, and did not become common until well after the American Revolution.

"Among the British stock of the southern colonies middle names were rarely bestowed on children until after the Revolution and did not become customary until the mid-1800s."

You can read Bob's full article on the subject at the link above.

So the next time you see someone with a middle name in an online tree or genealogy who lived in the 17th and 18th centuries I hope Bob's words on this subject will give you pause before you click that information blindly into your online tree or genealogy project.

Bob's Genealogy Filing Cabinet

One of my favorite cousin's Bob Baird, has posted some really great genealogy articles on his website at Some of this material is essential for anyone doing colonial era research. It often demolishes many of the myths that have been promulgated by genealogist for many years (i.e. people had middle names in the colonial period, etc).

Here is the latest list of article that he has published on a wide variety of topics. If you are a colonial researchers these are all must reads.


This is a collection of articles that I’ve written over the years to help others better understand and interpret old records.    We can often infer valuable information from context and language that might not be obvious from the record itself.  Many of these articles are specific to colonial Virginia but are generally applicable to other southern colonies as well, and some will be useful in researching the 19th century south as well.

Some General Information of a Legal Nature

Wills, Probate, Succession, and Inheritance


Taxes & Tithables

Parish Records

Names & Naming Practices

Sunday, April 9, 2017

What can you do with small ethnic percentages?

Author and DNA expert Blaine Bettinger posted this great Genetic Genealogy Tip:on his Facebook group.

Small ethnicity percentages (1 to 2% or less). What can we do with those? Which are real and which are noise? Here's what I do, and I'd love to hear what others do. I do not take small percentages at face value; instead, I analyze them with multiple calculators, preferably where I can "see" the segment(s) on the chromosome(s).

For example, let's say I've tested at 23andMe, and there's a single Native American segment on chromosome 3. I take the raw data to GEDmatch and use SEVERAL calculators (my favorite is Dodecad World9) to determine whether the same segment is identified on chromosome 3. Identifying the same segment using two or more calculators, which typically use slightly different algorithms and reference populations, vastly improves my confidence in the characterization of that segment as being Native American.

If you've tested at AncestryDNA or Family Tree DNA, you won't have the initial chromosome painting, but you can still use GEDmatch to perform the segment identification using multiple calculators.

I never use just percentages anywhere. I always visualize the segments on the chromosomes.

[One other trick - look for the segment in multiple generations. For example, is the segment there in a previous or later generation? Is the segment larger in a previous generation? If you see it in the same place in multiple generations, that again increases my confidence.]

United States Enumeration District Maps for the 1900-1940 US Censuses


From Genealogy Tip of the Day- FamilySearch has enumeration district maps online for the early 20th century. This can be an excellent way to access old city street maps.

Autosomal vs. Y-DNA Testing


What can Y-DNA testing do for you?

Blaine Bettinger discusses whether to use autosomal DNA or a Y-DNA test to answer a genealogical question on the Family Tree Magazine website at

New Ancestor Discovery using Ancestry’s Genetic Communities

Andre Kearns on his blog shares an idea on how users might leverage Genetic Communities to potentially discover new ancestors. Full article posted online at

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Family Tree DNA myOrigins Ethnicity Update

FTDNA has updated their myOrgins ethnicity estimates for people who have posted autosomal DNA results to their site according to Roberta Estes on her DNAsXplained blog.

Not only are the ethnicity percentages updated, sometimes significantly, but so are the clusters and the user interface.

Because of the new clusters and reference populations, the entire data base has been rerun. In essence, this isn’t just an update, but an entirely new version of myOrigins.

New Population Clusters

The updated version of myOrigins includes 24 reference populations, an increase of 6 from the previous 18 clusters.

The new clusters are:

  • East Central Africa
  • West Africa
  • South Central Africa
Central/South Asian
  • South Central Asia
  • Oceania
  • Central Asia
East Asian
  • Northeast Asia
  • Southeast Asia
  • Siberia
  • West and Central Europe
  • East Europe
  • Iberia
  • Southeast Europe
  • British Isles
  • Finland
  • Scandinavia
Jewish Diaspora
  • Sephardic Diaspora
  • Ashkenazi Diaspora
Middle Eastern
  • East Middle East
  • West Middle East
  • Asia Minor
  • North Africa
New World
  • North and Central America
  • South and Central America
Note that this grouping divides Native American between North and South America and includes the long-awaited Sephardic cluster.

See the full story on Roberta's blog at

Gene Tool: Quick-Reference Genetic Genealogy Cheat Sheet

Learn the basics of DNA testing with this collection of terms, resources and links courtesy of Family Tree Magazine at

A Gedmatch Admixture Guide!

Information courtesy of the Genealogical Musing blog at is a website where you can upload your raw DNA data for further analysis and matching with people from other companies who have also upload their data.

This guide is also available from Google Docs.

Part 1 - Admixture


Despite all the help articles available on Gedmatch, none of them really offer a comprehensive guide to understand the admixture calculators for newbies. Most of them are guides on understanding DNA in general, or how to upload your data, or using the one-to-many or one-to-one tools. But the most common questions I see about Gedmatch is “which admixture calculator do I use?” and “what do the results mean?” There is a Gedmatch wiki page on admixture found here: - but I don’t think it really answers the questions most people are looking for. Even Googling the topic only turns up spotty results from forums and blogs, nothing that really lays it all out. Since no one else has done it, here is my attempt. Please keep in mind I am no expert and have no formal education in genetics, this is just the knowledge I’ve gathered over the years from various sources as a result of trying to understand my own DNA results.

Admixture is a scientific term for the ethnicity percentages you received from a DNA company like, FamilyTreeDNA, 23andMe, or MyHeritage. It’s important to understand that each admixture project on Gedmatch is created by a different person, mostly academics. Note that most of the admixture results will include some basic info on the calculator, either on the results page, or through a link from the creator. However, the info provided may still be technical and difficult to understand for the average person, because they were primarily created for academic purposes. This is an attempt to translate some of that info into something more understandable to the average user. I apologize that this guide favors info on European backgrounds, but that is simply what I’m most familiar with, being a European descendant myself.

Be aware that it’s common practice in DNA admixtures to refer to populations from prehistoric times as “ancient”, even though this is a bit of a misnomer. In historical terms, ancient history marks the beginning of recorded history, but here, “ancient” generally refers to the time before written history, prehistory. Some time periods might be specified as “neolithic”, or “paleo/paleolithic”.

Step 1: Pick a project.

There are 7 projects to choose from, but what are they? What do they mean? Which one should you pick? Here’s a basic breakdown:

This is a global calculator and attempts to break your results down into different parts of the world. It’s good as an overview, but if, for example, you already know you’re European, it’s probably unnecessary. It’s also heavy on prehistoric groups. The blog for this project is found here: 

As the name suggests, this is primarily for people with European backgrounds. While it does have populations outside Europe, there are usually more sub-continental regions for Europe than any other continent. I highly recommend this as the go-to project for people with sole European ancestry. The blog for this project is found here: 

This project says it focuses primarily on Eurasians, but most of the calculators are geared more towards Asian and African ancestry than European. It’s not ideal for Europeans, but may be useful for people with mixed ancestry. The blog for this project can be found here: 

This calculator is primarily for people with Asian ancestry. The blog for this project can be found here: 

This is an African based project, though it does have options for people with mixed backgrounds (but including African). The blog for this project is found here: 

This is primarily a project on ancient DNA. There is no website, but questions and comments about should be directed to Abdullahi Warsame at 

This project focuses primarily Eurasian (especially Indian and Asian) and ancient DNA. There is no website, but for further questions, please contact the creator at 

Step 2: Pick a calculator.

You’ll find that for each project, there are often several calculators to choose from. How to choose? What do they mean? What are the differences? Well, for starters, the numbers following a ‘K’ usually indicate how many populations (or regions/categories) that calculator includes. So for example, Eurogenes EUtest V2 K15 has 15 populations. So choose one depending how many regions you want to break your results down into. Keep in mind the more populations and therefore the more specific the regions are, the more speculative the results will be.

Certain other tests may be specific to deeper, more prehistoric ancestry, like Hunter-Gatherer vs Farmer. Any abbreviation that starts with ‘A’ probably stands for ‘ancient’, but I will post a comprehensive terminology list at the end of this guide. These calculators for ancient DNA aren’t very useful if you’re just looking for an opinion on your more recent ethnicity results.
Other calculators might be specific to certain types of ancestry. For example, Eurogenes’ Jtest is specific to Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry. There’s no need to run this test if you don’t have any Jewish ancestry. In fact, you might get false results in Ashkenazi if you run this calculator and have no Jewish ancestry.

Here’s a more detailed breakdown of each calculator.

MDLP K11 Modern - 11 global populations including ancient

MDLP K16 Modern - 16 global populations including ancient and modern, results page includes full population descriptions

MDLP K23b - 23 global populations including ancient

MDLP World22 - 22 global populations including ancient, full details including maps of what areas each category covers are found here: 

MDLP World - 12 global populations, probably the original MDLP calculator


Eurogenes K13 - 13 global populations, mostly European. Creator made this the default as it “seems to hit the spot for most people” with European background. Details here: 

Eurogenes EUtest V2 K15 - 15 global populations, mostly European, also a popular option. Details including regional maps for each category found here: 

Eurogenes ANE K7 - 7 populations, Ancient North Eurasian, meaning this looks at ancient DNA mostly in Europe, Western Asia, and Africa. Details found here: 

Eurogenes K9b - 9 global populations, approximates Geno 2.0 analysis

Eurogenes K9 - 9 global populations, map available here: (population descriptions no longer available)

Eurogenes K10 - 10 global populations, map available here: (population descriptions no longer available)

Eurogenes K11 - 11 global populations, map available here: (population descriptions no longer available)

Eurogenes K12 - 12 global populations. North European ancestry is said to do well with this calculator. Map available here: (population descriptions no longer available)

Eurogenes K12b - 12 global populations, excluding Native American (Amerindian), map available here:  (population descriptions no longer available)

Eurogenes K36 - 36 global populations, mostly European. This is the most detailed breakdown for Europeans, but that also makes it highly speculative. Details found here: 

Eurogenes Hunter-Gatherer vs Farmer - 12 ancient Hunter-Gatherer vs Farmer populations. Map available here: 

Jtest - Jewish Ashkenazi, 14 global populations but mostly European, this is essentially the EUtest with an Ashkenazi category. Details including maps are here: 

EUtest - 13 global populations, mostly European minus Jewish Ashkenazi. Details including maps are here: 


Dodecad V3 - 12 populations, mostly Asian and African, 2 European. More info: 

Africa9 - 9 populations, all African except one European. More info: 

World9 - 9 global populations, not specific to any continent so good as an overview regardless of your ancestry. More info: 

Dodecad K7b - 7 global populations, 3 are Asian. More info: 

Dodecad K12b - 12 global populations but more of Asian and African. More info: 


HarappaWorld only has one calculator and as explained above, it’s primarily for Asian ancestry. It does include some European, African, and Native American populations, but it has more break down for Asia and the Middle East.


EthioHelix K10 + French - 10 populations, 9 African, one “French” which acts as a European population. This is really only useful/accurate for people with mixed African and European ancestry. Maps available here: 

EthioHelix K10 + Japanese - 10 populations, 9 African, one “Japanese” which acts as an Asian population. Only useful for people with a mix of African and Asian ancestry. Maps: 

EthioHelix K10 + Palestinian - 10 populations, 9 African, one “Palestinian” which acts as a Middle Eastern population. Only useful for people with a mix of African and Middle Eastern ancestry. Maps: 

EthioHelix K10 Africa Only - 10 strictly African populations, nothing else. Do not use if you have no African ancestry as results won’t be accurate. Maps: 


puntDNAL K10 Ancient - 10 ancient populations, incorporates Caucasus HG as well as Early Neolithic Farmers and Western European HG.

puntDNAL K12 Ancient - 12 populations, utilizing ancient oracle, more info provided on results page

puntDNAL K12 Modern - 12 populations utilizing modern oracle, more info provided on results page

puntDNAL K15 - 15 populations, focuses primarily on Africa (particularly East Africa), but also includes some West Asia, and Europe. More info: 

puntDNAL K8 African only - 8 populations, as the name suggest, it’s strictly an African calculator


Eurasia K9 ASI - 9 populations, modeled around the ancient ancestral South Indian component. More info on population descriptions: 

Eurasia K10 CHG - 10 ancient populations, modeled on Caucuses Hunter Gatherers, more info on population descriptions: 

Eurasia K11 CHG-NAF - 11 ancient populations, modeled on Caucuses Hunter Gatherers and Neolithic Anatolian Farmers, more info on population descriptions: 

Gedrosia K3 - 3 populations, Eastern Eurasian, Western Eurasian, and Sub-Saharan African. More details: 

Gedrosia K15 - 15 populations with a focus on the Indian subcontinent. Population descriptions: 

Eurasia K14 - 14 populations, using the same Neolithic and Bronze Age source data as the K14 Neolithic calculator, plus some modern populations

Eurasia K14 Neolithic - 14 populations, focus is on ancient Neolithic and Bronze Age genomes from across Eurasia. Population descriptions: 

Gedrosia K12 - 12 populations, designed for individuals of predominantly South Asian and West Asian ancestry for inferring gedrosian Balochi admixture. More info: 

Gedrosia K11 - 11 populations with a focus on Kalash Indo European peoples of Pakistan. Population descriptions: 

Ancient Eurasia K6 - 6 ancient populations, descriptions for which are available on results page.

Near East Neolithic K13 - 13 ancient populations, with a focus on the Near East. Details provided on results page.

Step 3: Understanding the results: A Terminology Guide

A list of populations you might see and a brief description. I did not include some of the most self-explanatory ones. Some that I have listed might still be obvious to some people, but I’ve seen others ask about them on occasion. If there isn’t one listed here, you might learn a lot by just googling it. There is also a good abbreviation guide here: 

Keep in mind different calculators may use different terms to refer to the same region or population.

Amerindian or Amerind - Native American (ie, American Indian meshed into one word)

Anatolian - mostly Turkey

Ancestral Altaic - Asia (excluding South), and Eastern Europe

ANE - Ancient North Eurasian

Archaic African - broad category for prehistoric Africans

Archaic Human - broad category for prehistoric humans around 500,000 years ago

ASE - Ancient/Ancestral South Eurasian

Ashkenazi - Ashkenazi Jewish of central/eastern Europe (not the same as Sephardic Jewish)

ASI - Ancient/Ancestral South Indian

Australian - aboriginals of Australia

Australoid - “people indigenous to Southeast Asia, South Asia, Australia, Melanesia, Polynesia, Micronesia, and historically parts of East Asia.” (Wikipedia)

Austronesian - “relating to or denoting a family of languages spoken in an area extending from Madagascar in the west to the Pacific islands in the east.” (Google)

Baloch - people of Iranian Plateau and Arabian Penninsula (primarily the Middle East)

Baltic - regions surrounding the Baltic sea

Bantu - Central and south Africa

Basal - Basal Eurasian?

Beringian - areas surround the Bering Strait (Eastern Russia and Alaska)

Biaka - aka Aka, “nomadic Mbenga pygmy people who live in southwestern Central African Republic and the Brazzaville region of the Republic of the Congo” (Wikipedia)

Caucasian/Caucasus - people of the Caucasus region, the border between Europe and Asia in between the Black sea and the Caspian Sea

CHG - Caucuses Hunter Gatherers

EHG - Eastern Hunter-Gatherer

ENF - Early Neolithic Farmer

Fennoscandian - Scandinavia and Finland

Gedrosia - Modern day Makran (semi-desert coastal strip in Balochistan, in Pakistan and Iran, along the coast of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman)

Khoisan - Southern Africa

Mbuti - “one of several indigenous pygmy groups in the Congo region of Africa” (Wikipedia)

Melanesian - “a subregion of Oceania (and occasionally Australasia) extending from the western end of the Pacific Ocean to the Arafura Sea, and eastward to Fiji.” (Wikipedia)

Mesoamerican - Native American in Mexico, Central and South America

NAF - Neolithic Anatolian Farmer

Oceanian - Aboriginals of the Pacific Ocean islands (may include Australia depending on calculator)

Omotic - Southwest Ethiopia

Papuan - New Guinea and surrounding islands

Pastoralist - Sheep or cattle farmer

Pygmy - “certain peoples of very short stature in equatorial Africa and parts of Southeast Asia.” (Google)

San - Bushmen of southern Africa

SEA - South East Asian

SSA - Sub-Saharan African

Steppe - “ancient North Eurasian hunter-gatherers' heritage, which was subsequently shown to have an influence in later eastern hunter-gatherers and to have spread into Europe via an incursion of
Steppe herders” (MDLP K16)

Tungus-Altaic        - Northeast China and Siberia

WHG - Western Hunter-Gatherer

WHG-UHG - Western Hunter-Gatherer/Unknown Hunter-Gatherer

Volga-Ural - Part of Russia (central)


Which project and calculator you go with greatly depends on your known ancestry. I know all this info is probably still a little overwhelming even with (or perhaps because of!) this guide. If you’re of European descent, and a newcomer to Gedmatch, and you just want a second opinion on your ethnicity results from any of the Big 3 companies (Big 4 now maybe, with MyHeritage joining the bandwagon), I’d recommend Eurogenes K13 or K15. Personally, I tend to prefer K15, because there are maps available showing specific what regions are covered by which categories. Certainly, you can play around with any of the other Eurogenes calculators too (except Jtest if you’re not Jewish). Most of the other projects and calculators are either geared more towards ancient DNA, other continents, or a mixed ancestry. You may find a non-bias global calculator in some of the other projects, but it’s probably not going to provide the breakdown of Europe you’re looking for.

If you’re looking for an ancient calculator, I again tend to stick to one of Eurogenes’ (HG vs F, or ANE), but MDLP have some good options too. There’s also a couple in puntDNAL which I don’t think have a bias towards any one type of ancestry.

If you’re African, Asian, or of mixed heritage, there are a number of options to choose from, but I unfortunately can’t recommend any. Most global calculators will include Amerindian (I have tried to note when a global one doesn’t).

It is frustrating that maps, or at least population descriptions, aren’t available for every calculator, but this is a free service, after all. It’s actually pretty amazing all the work the project creators do to provide this for free.

Part 2 - Oracle


The second most common questions I see about Gedmatch are about Oracle. What is it? What do the results means? Oracle is an attempt to pinpoint your origins to a more specific population or region.
There are two options: Oracle and Oracle 4. You will find buttons for them listed under your admixture results


Oracle will list your admixture results, then something called Single Population sharing, and finally Mixed Mode Population Sharing.

Single Population Sharing attempts to pinpoint a specific, single population that your DNA most closely matches, with a list of the top 20. The distance will tell you how closely you match each group, so the smaller the distance is, the more closely you match.

Mixed Mode Population Sharing will show you your top 20 of two specific, combined populations in order of how closely you match those populations. Again, the distance will tell you how closely you match this combo of populations, while the percentage will tell you how much of your DNA matched which population.

Oracle 4

Oracle 4 is essentially the same as Oracle, except it expands on it by providing combinations of 3 and 4 specific populations. The single and double combinations can be different from original Oracle though, so don’t bypass Oracle thinking you’ll get that and more with Oracle 4, it’s best to examine both.

Using 1 population approximation works the same as Single Population Sharing in Oracle, but I’ve noticed the results are sometimes different, so they’re obviously using a slightly different calculation. Reading the results works the same though: they are showing you a list of specific populations you most closely match, with the distant showing you just how closely you match.

Using 2 population approximation also works the same as Mixed Mode Population Sharing but again, results may vary, and for some reason only lists your one, top result instead of the top 20.

Using 3 population approximation works the same as 2, but with a combination of 3 populations instead. One result.

Using 4 population approximation obviously uses a combination of 4 specific populations you most closely match and lists your top 20 combos. This was designed especially for people who have 4 grandparents from 4 different places. It can also work well if most of your ancestry is mainly from 4 different places.


Be aware that the results from Oracle and Oracle 4 will vary depending on what admixture calculator you used, which is why they are found on the admixture results page, and not as a separate calculator. Also keep in mind the results are speculative, but I have found they do often make some sense, and in some cases, can be remarkably accurate.

Immigrant Name Changes

From the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service website

"We know from experience that records of entry of many aliens into the United States contain assumed or incorrect names and other errors."

From INS Operations Instruction 500.1 I, Legality of entry where record contains erroneous name or other errors, December 24, 1952. Among the reasons for the "incorrect" names were the immigrant's using:

- A fictitious name
- The name of another person
- The true name in a misspelled form
- The surname of the stepfather instead of the natural father
- The surname of a putative father in the case of an illegitimate child
- A nickname
- The name used because of foreign custom, such as the given name of the father (with or without prefix or suffix) for the surname, the name of the farm, or some other name formulated by foreign custom
- The maiden name instead of the married name
- The maiden name of the mother instead of the father's surname

Below, read some letters from immigrants explaining their name changes and an essay about immigrants' tendency to change their names…

From the Archives
When an immigrant's new name no longer matched that shown on their official immigration record (ship passenger list), he or she might face difficulties voting, in legal proceedings, or naturalization. Below are some sample letters representing typical cases. All the examples come from official Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) records now at the National Archives (Record Group 85) in Washington, DC, specifically Administrative Records Relating to Naturalization, 1906-1944 (Entry 26).

How Diamond became Cohen…

How Shukowsky became Zakotsky…

How Kohnovalsky became Cohn…

How Asszony became Miazaroz…

How Bahash became Amber…

How? became?...

How does one find letters like these in the Naturalization Bureau files at the National Archives?  Read about the Name Index to Bureau of Naturalization Correspondence. . .

American Names / Declaring Independence
(A July 4th essay)

Note the following story, which is a perfect specimen of a peculiar quality of the American mind, one bearing no small relation to Independence Day:

I have a friend who tells the story of her ancestor coming from one of the Slavic countries and he, of course, could speak no English. At Ellis Island when he was being processed and any question was asked, he would nod his head and smile. Since all he did was smile when they asked his name, the clerk wrote down 'Smiley' for his surname. That was the family surname from then on.

Whenever I see one of these "name change" stories, I'm reminded of the beautiful creation stories of the Native Americans, "How the Bear Lost his Tail," for example. These stories contain an important truth. They help us understand our world. But we are foolish if we take each one literally, without further investigation. The idea that all bears have short tails because an ancient bear's tail was frozen into the ice is not a very scientific explanation. Similarly, the idea that an entire family's name was changed by one clerk--especially one at Ellis Island--is seldom supported by historical research and analysis.

American name change stories tend to be apocryphal, that is, they developed later to explain events shrouded in the mist of time. Given the facts of US immigration procedure at Ellis Island, the above story becomes suspect. In the story, the immigrant arrived at Ellis Island and a record was then created by someone who could not communicate with the immigrant and so assigned the immigrant a descriptive name. In fact, passenger lists were not created at Ellis Island. They were created abroad, beginning close to the immigrant's home when the immigrant purchased his ticket. It is unlikely that anyone at the local steamship office was unable to communicate with this man. His name was most likely recorded with a high degree of accuracy at that time.

It is true that immigrant names were mangled in the process. The first ticket clerk may have misspelled the name (assuming there was a "correct spelling"--a big assumption). If the immigrant made several connections in his journey, several records might be created at each juncture. Every transcription of his information afforded an opportunity to misspell or alter his name. Thus the more direct the immigrant's route to his destination, the less likely his name changed in any way.

The report that the clerk "wrote down" the immigrant’s surname is also suspect. During immigrant inspection at Ellis Island the immigrant confronted an inspector who had the passenger list already created abroad. That inspector operated under rules and regulations ordering that he was not to change the name or identifying information found for any immigrant unless it was requested by the immigrant or inspection demonstrated the original information was in error.

Furthermore, it is nearly impossible that no one could communicate with the immigrant. On Ellis Island ca. 1892 to 1924, one-third of all immigrant inspectors were themselves foreign-born, and all immigrant inspectors spoke an average of three languages. They were assigned to inspect immigrant groups based on the languages they spoke. If the inspector could not communicate, Ellis Island employed a full-time army of interpreters and would call in temporary interpreters under contract to translate for immigrants speaking the most obscure tongues.

Despite these facts, the Ellis-Island-name-change-story (or Castle Garden, or earlier versions of the same story) is as American as apple pie (and probably as common in Canada too, eh?). Why?

The explanation lies in ideas as simple as language and cultural differences, and as complex as the root of American culture. We all know names have been Anglicized in America (even the word "Anglicized" has been Americanized!). As any kindergartener learns, we live in a world where people ask our name then write it down without asking us how to spell or pronounce that name. Once in America, immigrants were typically asked their name and entered into official records by those who had "made it" in America and thus were already English-speaking (i.e., teachers, landlords, employers, judges etc.). The fact that those with the power to create official records were English-speaking explains much about small changes, over time, in the spelling of certain names.

Many immigrants welcomed this change. Anyone from Eastern Europe, with a name long on consonants and short on vowels, learned that his name often got in the way of a job interview or became the subject of ridicule at his child's school. Any change that might smooth their way to the American dream was seen as a step in the right direction. Perhaps this was the case with Mr. Smiley. It was the case of another family from Russia, named Smiloff or Smilikoff, who emigrated to Canada at the turn of the century. By the time their son immigrated from Canada to the US in 1911, his name had become Smiley.

Some name changes are not so easy to trace. Rather than a different spelling of the same-sounding name, an entirely new name was adopted. These are the most American stories of all.

"Who is this new man, this American?" asked Crevecoeur. He was Adam in the Garden, man beginning again, leaving all the history and heartbreak of the Old World behind. The idea that what made America unique was the opportunity for man to live in a state of nature, a society of farmers whose perception of Truth is unfettered by ancient social and political conventions lies at the base of Jeffersonian democratic theory. The New World became a place for mankind to begin again, a place where every man can be re-born and re-create himself. In such circumstances, the adoption of a new name is not surprising. Nor is it surprising in the cases of immigrants who came to America to abandon a wife and family or to escape conscription in a European army. There were all kinds of reasons, political and practical, to take a new name.

In the 1990’s, a newspaper in California told the story of a Vietnamese immigrant with a long, Vietnamese name so strange-looking to Anglo eyes. The young man came to this country and began to work and study. He began every day by stopping at a convenience store to buy a "bonus pak" of chewing gum. Chewing all those sticks of gum got him through long days of working several jobs and studying English at night. When he finally naturalized as a US citizen, he requested his name be changed to Don Bonus--the surname taken from the "Bonus Pak" and chosen to signify all his work and effort to become an American. He was a new man.

If not for the newspaper story, we would not understand this name change. Mr. Bonus' naturalization papers would simply record the name change but not the reasons behind it. If he had not naturalized, his Bonus family descendants generations from now would be at quite a loss to explain the origin of their name.

The documentation of name changes during US naturalization procedure has only been required since 1906. Prior to that time, only those immigrants who went to court and had their name officially changed and recorded left us any record. Congress wrote the requirement in 1906 because of the well-known fact that immigrants DID change their names, and tended to do so within the first 5 years after arrival. Without any record, immigrants and their descendants are left to construct their own explanations of a name change. Often, when asked by grandchildren why they changed their name, old immigrants would say "it was changed at Ellis Island."

People take this literally, as if the clerk at Ellis Island actually wrote down another name. But one should consider another interpretation of "Ellis Island." That immigrant is remembering his initial confrontation with American culture. Ellis Island was not only immigrant processing, it was finding one's way around the city, learning to speak English, getting one's first job or apartment, going to school, wearing American clothes, and perhaps adjusting one's name to a new spelling or pronunciation. All these experiences, for the first few years, were the "Ellis Island experience." When recalling their immigration decades before, many immigrants referred to the entire experience as "Ellis Island."

So, on this day when we celebrate the breaking of our bond with the Old World, let us welcome Mr. Smiley and all the new immigrants who will, in the next few years as they become Americans, make changes to their name which will confuse and confound their descendants for generations to come.

With genetic testing, I gave my parents the gift of divorce

One of George Doe's favorite phrases is "sunlight is the best disinfectant."

He still think that's true, but Autosmal DNA testing has challenged that worldview. "This is an example where having more information has had a negative emotional and psychological impact on me and family relationships."

You can read George Doe's article on all this on at