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Playing the Name Game

Understanding changes to Italian surnames when doing Italian ancestry research

While you may think you know what name your ancestor went by, knowing your ancestor’s original name –  as well as any potential spelling variants or nicknames –  is essential for research in both the United States and Italy. 

Your ancestor’s “original” surname (i.e.  before any potential Americanization) will be listed on passenger lists and often in the U.S. records created during the first five to seven years in the new country.  After that, Italians began to evolve their given names and surnames, often due to social pressure to have a more “American” name or to apply for jobs that weren’t given to Italians because of their ethnicity.  Some immigrants changed their names for other more dramatic reasons:  escaping military conscription, hiding from family they left behind, shielding themselves from criminal elements such as the Black Hand.

These name changes can create problems for researchers. For example, one family we researched entered the United States using De Botta and are found in the first federal census after their arrival with this surname. However, by the time their third child was born in the United States, their surname had become the less-Italian Bott, and later Brown. This can create difficulties when researching an Italian family, especially when the final surname is in no way similar to the original Italian surname. Brown didn’t strike us as a natural transliteration /  corruption of De Botta, and so we never would have thought to search for it in US Census records.

Given names were also commonly changed after immigration to sound more American. Even first-generation Italian-Americans were born with one given name but used another. Determining the English version of an Italian name could be key to finding these ancestors within US records.

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