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


  1. My husband's great grandfather immigrated with his polish first and surname. After he arrived, he alternately used both his made up American name and original polish name on various census, legal documents, police reports, etc. His first name was Jan and his American name was John, but his polish and American surnames do not even share a single letter.

    His daughters all used the polish surname, but his sons also alternated using both versions. By the time we got to obituaries, it was about 50/50 for which name was used. This generation does not seem to have a clue as to why their grandparents used different names or how he came up with that one. His family, parents and brothers, all lived in the same small town and used the polish name.

    1. What an interesting--and curious--story, Miss Merry. Thanks for sharing that. It certainly would be interesting to know where that surname came from, and how he decided to adopt it for his own--and why.

      It's such illustrations which make me wonder how pervasive among Polish immigrants in general was the type of behavior seen in my grandfather. That, in turn, makes me wonder if there was any root for that in their experiences in the past.

  2. Replies
    1. It is frustrating, Far Side! I've had several researchers tell me I'm just dealing with two different people...but I'm not so sure about that...


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