Why anglicizing immigrant ancestors’ names isn’t such a good idea.

If you live in a country that has been a popular destination for immigrants around the world – say, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, Argentina, Brazil, etc – tracing your ancestors’ roots back to their native lands is an exciting journey.

The question is, how best to record those ancestors’ names?  Chances are, the name they were known by in their adopted country wasn’t the name they were known by in their homeland. Specifically speaking, what’s the best way to record an immigrant ancestor’s name on services like Ancestry.com or FamilyTree? There really isn’t any guidance on this one. I haven’t seen any best practice.  What I have seen, in my own European family research, are countless non-English names that have been anglicized (translated into English, in other words).

I get it. On the one hand, this makes some unknown foreign ancestor seem more like us. And chances are, either our immigrant ancestors, or some Customs official, anglicized the name. This, however, causes problems when it comes to tracking down records and information about our immigrant ancestors in their native land. Why? The official records in their native country will only refer to them by the name they were born with.

I created a system where I use both names for what I call my gateway immigrant ancestors. I hope this practice also helps others researching the same lines in the same countries. Indeed, it’s already helped the German descendant a long-lost distantly related German kinsman reach out and say ‘halo!’.

So here’s how I record these names on Ancestry.com.

Hans Frederick Geyer who immigrated to Philadelphia from Germany, and then settled in Frederick County, MD, is recorded as:  Frederick (Hans Friedrich) Geyer (Geier).  I put the original German names in parentheses.

I record Anna Catharina Scheffe as: Catherine (Anna Catharina) Sheffey (Scheffe).

I record Vincenzo Scarlatti as: Vincent “Vinnie” (Vincenzo) Scarlatti.

By doing this, I’m letting anyone who comes across one of my gateway ancestors know that they have found a person who immigrated to the US and whose name was changed as a result. They ought to be able to figure out what name to use in a US-specific search. They should also be able to work out which name to use when searching for records in that ancestor’s native country.

Why go to the bother? Again, if you are trying to research Frederick Geyer in Germany, he doesn’t exist. He wouldn’t exist as his birth, baptism and departure records wouldn’t have recorded him as Frederick Geyer. Search for Hans Friedrich Geier and, well, there are records a-plenty to peruse for your research.

From my own experience, the difference between Jacob and Jakob, Carl and Karl and Joanna and Johanna makes all the difference between finding records for a gateway ancestor in their homeland – or not.

If you’ve inherited a family tree filled with anglicized names of immigrant ancestors, what can you do to translate these names back into their native, original form? I honesty wish I had a convenient website to point you towards. I don’t. My best advice is to do a search using your preferred search engine (eg “What is the German version of the name Thomas”?)

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