In researching immigrants and their ancestry, many of us face a common roadblock: determining the birth names of immigrants. Often, after immigrating to the United States, immigrants would Americanize their names. Different ways to determine the original names of immigrants include, among other things, locating their naturalization documents; locating naturalization documents of their family members; or searching passenger lists without entering surnames.
Naturalization documents sometimes indicate original names of immigrants and their name changes. When my great grandmother Fannie’s family immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s, they took on the surname Stilman or Stillman. According to various family members, their surname in Pilyava (formerly in Russia, now in the Ukraine) was Stifelman. The naturalization record that I located for Fannie only provided her married surname.
If you are unable to locate your research subject’s naturalization documents, try to locate the naturalization documents of your research subject’s family members. For instance, search for the naturalization documents of your research subject’s parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, or even cousins. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, The Importance of Researching Extended Family Members, I recommend locating a variety of sources regarding extended family members in order to find out more information on your ancestor or research subject.
Although I did not locate naturalization records for Fannie that indicated her original surname, I was able to locate the naturalization documents of Fannie’s older brother, Herman Stilman. Among the documents, I located Herman’s certificate of arrival, his declaration of intention, and his petition for naturalization. Each document varies in the spelling of Herman’s original name. This is not surprising given that his original name would have been transcribed from Yiddish to English.
More specifically, his original name is stated as Chaim Stiefelman on the certificate of arrival, Chaem Shtibelman/Shtebelman on the declaration of intention, and Chaim Shtibelman on the petition for naturalization. Both the declaration of intention and petition for naturalization indicate that his name was changed to Herman Stilman.
If you are unable to locate the naturalization record of your research subject or the naturalization record does not provide the birth name, try searching passenger lists without entering surnames. For a long time, I was having difficulty figuring out the birth name of my great grandmother Sarah. I had already located Sarah’s marriage records and census documents. From her marriage record, I knew that her maiden name in the United States was Mayrovitz and married name was Levin. A census document indicates that she arrived in the United States in about 1914. I also knew that she was from Letichev (formerly in Russia, now in the Ukraine). In the “Passenger Lists”collection on Ancestry, I entered all known information about Sarah into the search fields. Scrolling through the results, I located a 1914 passenger list with the name Sure Meyerowitsch. The list indicates, among other things, that Sure was from Letichev and was the same age as my great grandmother Sarah. The passenger list was consistent with all the known information regarding Sarah. Consequently, I was able to conclude that Sure listed on the passenger list was my great grandmother Sarah.
Although it may be daunting to determine the birth names of immigrants, do not give up. As explained in the preceding paragraphs, try to locate naturalization documents or passenger lists. Once you know the birth names of immigrants, it will be easier to locate their genealogical records from their birthplaces and trace their ancestral roots.
District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, naturalization records, Naturalization Petitions for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, 1795-1930, microfilm publication M1522 (Washington D.C.: NARA, n.d.), roll 294, naturalization file no. 75552, Chaem Shtebelman declaration (1920) and Chaem Shtibelman [Herman Stilman] petition for naturalization (1926); viewed at “Pennsylvania, Federal Naturalization Records, 1795-1931,” digital image, Ancestry (http://ancestry.com : accessed 27 April 2020).
Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, microfilm publication T840 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), roll 125, 4 April 1914, SS Main, List 3, line 8, Sure Meyerowitsch; digital images, Ancestry (http://ancestry.com: accessed 27 April 2020).