Thursday, June 20, 2019
Reinventing Yourself, Immigrant Style
I've heard it said that those stories about ancestors' names being "changed at Ellis Island" are, for the most part, incorrect. I'm willing to buy that assertion, but only if I can offer a substitution: that some immigrants did indeed change their name at some point after arriving on American shores. While some of those changes were done through legal channels—I've shared about discovering my godmother's name change following her move to New York—others were likely less formal. Like really less formal.
Of course, that doesn't preclude the possibility that an immigrant did go through proper channels and that I just couldn't find the record. My grandfather's situation may turn out to be exactly that type of example. For now, though, I'm left with three simple clues—not quite the stuff that sound proof arguments are made of. I found those three clues in a census record, a draft record, and a petition for citizenship.
Mind you, not all those documents were concerning the same name. That's the trouble: it's only my opinion that they represent the same person. But have patience. I can 'splain.
From the 1910 U.S. Census for Brooklyn, New York, we can find my supposed grandfather, in what I presume was his original name, Theodore J. Puhalski, living in the household of his wife's parents, Anton and Mary Laskowski. Along with the entry for his wife, Sophie, are conveniently placed the given names of my father and his sister.
The census does make mention of the year of Theodore Puhalski's arrival in this country: 1884. That—along with the fact of his occupation—is corroborated nicely with the same report in his naturalization records, signed by Theodore at the end of December, 1905.
Just as we find such crumbs of the minutiae of Theodore's life—tiny details which match between two entirely different records—we need to replicate that same process in bridging the record gap between Theodore J. Puhalski, husband of Sophie Laskowska, and John T. McCann, husband of Sophie Laskowska. For instance, despite his death certificate reporting that he was born in Brooklyn—not!—I have a record under the name Puhalski which states the man's date of birth was August 7, 1876, and a record also asserting that John T. McCann was born on August 7, 1876.
Interestingly enough, that World War I Draft Registration Card, completed on September 12, 1918, using the name John T. McCann, declared that he was a naturalized citizen, and an alien from Russian Poland. How many guys with a surname like that do you know of from Poland? And how coincidental that both men were machinists working for a printing company in Brooklyn. Maybe even the same company. Perhaps they knew each other...
Above: Heading of the naturalization record for Theodore J. Puhalski, dated December 29, 1905, from the Eastern District of New York; image courtesy Ancestry.com.