UFO ancestors? Everyone’s got them… those folks who just appear out of nowhere or those who just up and disappear! So, I ask you to consider in your research plan the possibility that your relative changed their name.
These changes could have been done formally or informally, at any anytime during their life. With the advent of the Great War and subsequently, World War II, ethnic surnames were changed to draw public attention away from country origins. As New Jersey came into the latter part of the 20th century, it became necessary to complete name changes through legal channels. The Department of Motor Vehicles and other state agencies do appreciate when we can have the correct documents proving our identities.
While one of the greatest genealogical myths is that names are changed *at* Ellis Island, the fact is that that’s not where immigrant name changes took place. FACT: The ship passenger registers were created at the port of departure, not arrival. The plausible reason for a name change was that immigrants wanted to assimilate into American society and they changed their name after they settled into their neighborhood. With the European unrest beginning with the Great War (WWI) and through World War II, for some, they felt Americanizing their family’s surname was a good way to declare their patriotism.
The New Jersey State Archives (NJSA) has a great online resource for legal name changes done in the years 1847-1947. The collection – Legal Name Legal Name Changes, 1847-1947 – contains name changes from the record series, Department of State / Division of Commercial Recording / Name-Change Judgments, 1876-1947. The online index also references earlier name changes done by legislative act, as well as a number of name-change judgments found among the Secretary of State’s Miscellaneous Fillings (Series II).
Some examples from this collection include:
- Yaroslau Szynuvich of Trenton filed on 8 January 1943 in Mercer County Court of Common Pleas a petition to assume the name of “Jack Nevis”.
- Louis Wechsler of Newark filed on 26 June 1929 in Essex County Court of Common Pleas a petition to assume the name “Louis Wexler”.
- William Jablesnik of Fort Lee filed on 23 May 1934 in Bergen County Court of Common Pleas a petition to assume the name “Francis William Appleton”.
- And this goes on…
These examples show how folks Americanized their names through a minor change in spelling – Wechsler to Wexler; a surname truncation – Szynuvich to Nevis; and a translation – Jablesnik to Appleton.
 Yaroslau Szynuvich Name-Change Judgment, DCR File #7783, New Jersey Department of State, Division of Commercial Recording, New Jersey State Archives, Trenton, New Jersey.
 Louis Wechsler Name-Change Judgment, DCR File #2571, New Jersey Department of State, Division of Commercial Recording, New Jersey State Archives, Trenton, New Jersey.
 William Jablesnik Name-Change Judgment, DCR File #3152, New Jersey Department of State, Division of Commercial Recording, New Jersey State Archives, Trenton, New Jersey.