The Immigration Agents Changed My Family Name – Not!

How many times have your heard that immigration agents at Ellis Island (New York) changed your Armenian family’s name when they arrived in this country? This is a prevailing narrative in popular culture, especially in movies and literature, not just for Diaspora Armenians in the United States and Canada, but for other ethnic groups, as well.

However, it is a myth. Armenian names often changed when they settled in America, but for different reasons altogether. Ellis Island, which opened in 1892, was one of many seaports for processing immigrants coming to the U.S. and Canada on passenger steamships in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They also arrived at ports like Halifax (Nova Scotia), St. John (New Brunswick), and Quebec City (Quebec) in Canada; in America, they docked in Providence (Rhode Island), Philadelphia (Pennsylvania), Boston (Massachusetts), and San Francisco (California) as well as many others. The majority of passengers did arrive at Ellis Island. The Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation, One-Step Web Pages by Stephen P. Morse, FamilySearch, Ancestry and other organizations provide tools for searching passenger arrivals at  various ports of arrival. The key resource for documenting passengers arriving at American ports is called a “ship manifest,” which is a form (designed according to the incoming country’s current immigration laws) that lists everyone being “delivered” to that port (more on this later).


Armenian Personal Names

In western (European) culture over the last millennium, we often see three components to personal names—first name, middle name, and last name (family name or surname). As populations increased in countries like England, France, and Germany around 1000-1200 CE, a first name (by itself) was no longer sufficient to differentiate individuals, as many people had the same first name. That’s when a surname was added, typically based on a parent’s first name, occupation, place of origin, or trait. The surname was often passed down through subsequent generations (along the male lines, as married women passed on their husband’s surname to their own children). Later on, a middle name was added to further differentiate individuals. (Y-chromosomes are also passed down the direct male line, the same as “western” surnames, which is why DNA studies using the y-chromosome can be useful in tracing surname-based genealogies.)

A common misperception is that name changes were imposed on immigrants by careless or flippant government officials at the port of entry

In the several hundred years preceding World War I (1914-1918 CE) and the Armenian Genocide, Armenians in the traditional Armenian homeland were mostly distributed across three empires— Ottoman (Turkey), Russian, and Persian. The naming convention described above for western Europe was not commonplace then among Armenians in the homeland. In documents where names were given, such as male-only Ottoman population registers of the early 1800s (see George Aghjayan’s landmark research), we typically only see the person’s first name, accompanied by a reference to the father’s first name (“son of”, -ian or –yan in transliterated Latin letters). For example, Mamigon’s son Dikran would be called Dikran Mamigonian. Dikran’s son Kevork (Mamigon’s grandson) would be called Kevork Dikranian. With this patronymic naming system (which is still evident on ship manifests and other documents of the early 1900s), surnames were not passed down across multiple generations. (Since surnames in the “western” sense were not commonplace until relatively recently among Armenians living in the historic homeland, having a common surname with someone is a poor predictor of a common direct paternal relationship. For example, most people with my family surname, Arslanian, are not my close relatives.)

Armenians living in the Russian Empire prior to the establishment of the Republic of Armenia (in 1918), and for some years afterwards, often affixed a Russian ending (–of, -off, or –ov) to an Armenian root to form their surname (e.g., Kevorkoff, Atamov, or Grigorof). Similarly, the –iants or –ianz ending was common among Armenians living in the Persian Empire. The ending –ouni, -uni, or –ooni can also be found.

When Armenians started to interact more with the “western” world in Europe and North America in the 1800s, the practice of passing surnames across multiple generations became more common. However, many Armenians alternated between the old patronymic naming system and the newer “western” one. In the above example, you might find Kevork going by the surname of Dikranian (after his father) or Mamigonian (after his paternal grandfather), or both, and then passing down one of those surnames to his own children. By the early 1900s, as surnames started to be passed down through multiple generations (on the male lines), it was common for a person to adopt his father’s first name as his own middle name. In our example, we could see the name Kevork Dikran Mamigonian (i.e., Kevork, the son of Dikran Mamigonian).

If there was an Armenian priest in the family, the word “Der” (in Western Armenian) or “Ter” (in Eastern Armenian) would be attached to the front of the surname (e.g., Der Mamigonian).

As stated earlier, surnames in the “western” world were typically based on a parent’s first name, occupation, place of origin, or trait. The same was true of Armenian surnames. The roots for these names were often of a biblical (Christian) nature—Boghos, Bedros, Ohannes, Mariam, Mgrditch, and Khachadour. In Turkey, you would often find names (particularly those relating to occupations), based on Turkish roots—those ending in –ji, hence Tashjian, Boyajian, and Chaderjian.

So, how did the Armenian names appear on ship manifests when they arrived in America, and how did the names change after their arrival? Were the changes voluntary or imposed? Let’s explore the perceptions and facts.


Ship Manifests

A common misperception is that name changes were imposed on immigrants by careless or flippant government officials at the port of entry (e.g., Ellis Island). The typical picture is of an immigrant (fresh off the boat) standing in a long line waiting to be processed by an immigration official seated at a table with a large book of ship manifest pages in front of him. The immigrant reaches the front of the line and is questioned by the official.

Official: “Please state your full name, sir.”

Immigrant: “My name is Hayrabed Koundrakjian.”

Official: “I’m sorry. Please say that again for me.”

Immigrant: “Hayrabed Koundrakjian.”

Official: “Okay. Harry Cone.” (The official writes the name in the ship manifest.) “Now, tell me your age, occupation, birthplace, whom you are joining…”

One of my favorite portrayals of this scenario is in the cartoon movie An American Tale, in which the mouse family named Mousekewitz comes to New York from Russia and passes through Castle Garden (America’s first immigration station, predating Ellis Island). But, this is not reality. That’s not the way ship manifests were created. Not even close.

When a ship arrives at a port, a manifest is often required by the local authorities, stating what cargo the ship is delivering. This is used for things like imposition of tariffs, regulation of contraband goods, etc. It is simply a list of what is on-board. In the case of steamships arriving at immigration facilities like Ellis Island, the goods are humans—people who paid for passage across the ocean to come to America. The U.S. Bureau of Immigration implemented the then-current laws regarding immigration and naturalization, which included the format and content of the ship manifests for passenger steamships. These laws, and the ship manifests themselves, underwent frequent changes from the late 1800s through the 1920s and later in response to changes brought on by wars and economic conditions, as pro- and anti-immigration sentiment ebbed and flowed. It is good news for today’s researchers that the breadth of information contained in the manifests starting around 1900, and particularly after 1907, were so robust. Canada, too, required ship manifests for passengers coming into its seaports, but the information contained within them is frustratingly meager, compared to U.S. ship manifests of that time.

The supposed veracity of the “Immigrant Agents Changed My Family Name” scenario rests in large part on the incorrect assumption that the ship manifests were filled out by immigration agents at the port of arrival (e.g., Ellis Island), during the interview with the new immigrant. What were the facts? How did the names and other information get put on the ship manifests that were used to process arrivals to America?

The Immigration Act of 1917 was the first federal law to place literacy restrictions on immigration to the U.S. The Act updated and codified previous immigration legislation that had slowly removed the open-door policies existing prior to the 1880s. In Section 12, it clearly states that the passenger names and other information on the ship manifests are to be written by the steamship company at the place of embarkation and presented, filled out, to USA immigration officers upon arrival.

Section 12 of Immigration Act of 1917 (Image courtesy Mark Arslan)
At the top of the ship manifest (the version starting in 1907), you can see the instruction about presenting the ship manifest, already filled out, to U.S. immigration agents upon arrival (Image courtesy Mark Arslan)

In Section 13, it states that the passengers will be given tickets containing the page number and line number where that person’s entry can be found on the ship manifest. This allows the immigration agent to easily locate the passenger’s entry on the ship manifest, in order to begin the interview process upon arrival.

These passengers are wearing their ID tags upon arrival (Photos courtesy Mark Arslan)

How, when, and where were steamship tickets purchased for passage to America, and who put the names and other information on the ship manifest?

Tickets were purchased in advance of sailing; the ship manifests were not prepared as passengers boarded the ship (which would have led to the “tell me your name” scenario, and raising the possibility that steamship agents facilitated the wholesale involuntary name change of Armenian immigrants on the other side of the ocean, instead of the U.S. immigration agents). We know this because most of the ship manifests had many instances of passenger names being crossed off the list, sometimes accompanied by the words “not on board” or “did not board” or the notation NOB (not on board). These passengers had originally booked passage on that ship, but did not sail for some reason (perhaps illness or logistical problems in traveling to the port of embarkation). Very often, we find that same passenger on another ship’s manifest, embarking from that same port within a month and subsequently being admitted into the U.S. or Canada.

To figure out where the tickets were purchased, we turn to Canadian passenger records. From 1921 through 1924, Canada used cards called Form 30A (one per passenger) instead of the ship manifest sheets (which, as I said, contained little information). These cards, by contrast, contained about as much information as the U.S. ship manifests of that time, plus some tantalizing information about prior passports and visas, as well as ticket purchase.

This person, Peperon Mouradian, booked passage on the steamship Melita, departing from Antwerp, Belgium en route to her destination in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada. At the bottom of this card, we can see that the steamship ticket was purchased from an agent of L. M. Currie & Co. in Marseille, France.

Form 30A for Peperon Mouradian (Image courtesy Mark Arslan)

Many Armenians departing from Atlantic seaports in France (Cherbourg, Le Havre, and Boulogne), England (Liverpool and Southampton), and Belgium (Antwerp) probably arrived there via Marseille (journeying much of the way by train from Marseille). From 1921-1924, most of the tickets for Armenians in France bound for Canada were purchased from agents in Marseille (who gathered the passenger’s name and other pertinent information and provided it to the steamship company). We don’t have a similar record of where ticket purchases were made for steamships traveling from the same Atlantic seaports to U.S. destinations (like New York’s Ellis Island) in the 1920s and earlier decades, but it certainly did not happen as they boarded the ships. Many ships did depart from Mediterranean seaports, but the trip through the Strait of Gibraltar added at least a week to the voyage. Advance ticket purchases were likely made for those ships, as well.

So, who filled out the ships manifests? It was the responsibility of the steamship company prior to sailing to America. The information (passenger name, etc.) was provided at the time of the ticket purchase (as shown by the Canadian 30A Form) and sent to the steamship company to be entered by an employee, probably a clerk.

Did the clerks intentionally change the names of the Armenian passengers to “American” names? In my own research for the Armenian Immigration Project over the past 15+ years, I have looked through millions of ship manifest entries, extracting over 60,000 entries for Armenians coming to the U.S. and Canada in the period prior to 1930. I have seen no evidence that anyone of Armenian ethnicity was arbitrarily assigned an “American” name on the ship manifest.

The names written in the ship manifests were their Armenian names. Some names were so badly mangled that someone (probably the U.S. immigration agent at the time of processing the new arrival) wrote the person’s corrected name above the entry (as shown below). These corrected names were clearly recognizable Armenian names. Why were the names indecipherable in the first place? Maybe the shipping company clerk was unable to read the handwriting of the agent who sold the ticket, or the clerk’s own handwriting was illegible to the receiving port’s immigration agent.

Image courtesy Mark Arslan

The original ship manifests were also used years later when the immigrant applied for U.S. citizenship to verify that person’s arrival in America. When this happened and a Certificate of Arrival was affixed to the naturalization application, a notation was written above that person’s entry in the ship manifest. In some rare cases, the person’s later anglicized name (or alias) might also be written above the entry, but this was done years later.

In some cases, an immigrant’s entry on a ship manifest was under the name of a different person, or the relationship information was incorrect. In most cases, we can only guess at the reasons. One possibility is the passenger used someone else’s ticket. Maybe Sahag Arslanian booked passage to America, but was unable to travel due to illness. Instead of giving up his ticket and travel reservation, his cousin Bedros Kakligian traveled in his place. Or maybe someone brought a niece or neighbor girl as their own daughter, just to get them to America.

So, why did so many Armenian immigrants to America change their names and how did this happen?


Name Changes in America

Immigrants to America in the late 1800s and early 1900s were under no obligation to use the name shown on their ship manifest. They could, and many did, go by whatever name they wished. If you trace an immigrant family or individual from their arrival at an American seaport or land border crossing and look at primary source records over the next several decades, you will see the different names used over time.

In the U.S. and Canada (as in western Europe), the alphabet in use was Latin and the predominant language was something other than Armenian (English in the U.S. and in the province of Ontario in Canada). Accommodations were made so that Armenians living in the diaspora could interact with non-Armenians, participate in the new social and economic structures, and adhere to administrative procedures and record-keeping (official documents like military draft registrations, censuses, civil vital records, naturalization and passport applications, etc.).

First, the Armenian personal names (first, middle, and last) were transliterated into the Latin alphabet. Variations would be common due to differences in dialect in the place of origin in the Armenian homeland, whether the immigrant was Western Armenian (Ottoman Empire) or Eastern Armenian (Russian and Persian Empires), in what country the immigrant resided (French-speaking Quebec vs. the U.S. or Ontario), or personal preference. Brothers even spelled their surnames differently in America.

Once the letters were transliterated, the pronunciation might still be particularly difficult for the English tongue. A name like Khosrovatoukht Chaghatzbanian would be a mouthful for the new neighbors of an Armenian bride fresh off the boat from Turkey. Many surnames were eventually anglicized (Ohannesian to Johnson, Khachigian to Cross, or Terzian to Taylor), shortened (Arslanian to Arslan), converted phonetically (Buyukian to Bacon), or changed altogether (Normart). This is not to say that any particular spelling is the correct spelling. Each family has their own preference. Different branches of the same family may spell their surname differently. Armenians from the Ottoman Empire living in America often spell the same surname differently from those who came from the Russian or Persian Empires (particularly in the name endings, like –ian vs. –yan vs. –iantz). The surname prefixes “Ter” and “Der” were typically dropped among diaspora Armenians.

Armenian first and middle names underwent a similar transformation among the diaspora in America. Names were converted to their English equivalents (Kevork to George, Yeghisapet to Elizabeth, Boghos to Paul, Zabel to Isabelle, Bedros to Peter, Aghavni to Dove) or converted to a more common English sounding name even if not an actual equivalent (Garabed to Charles, Arshaloys to Alice, Dickran to Dick/Richard, Siravart to Sarah). Names like Sam and Harry were very popular choices for males in the early 1900’s, even if the original Armenian name was completely different. So, how did these name changes come about for newly-arrived Armenian immigrants to America? Did they happen overnight or gradually? Were they imposed or voluntary? Was there such a thing as an official name? Let’s explore these questions.

Armenians who came to America in this time period left many traces in governmental and non-governmental records throughout the remainder of their lives. Some of these records were written or printed in Armenian (church registers and Armenian-language newspapers like Hairenik) and most of these retained the original Armenian names. However, most of the records written in English (as well as French in Quebec and Spanish in Mexico) reflected gradual changes of the Armenian personal names. The following are two specific examples of name transformations.


Buyukian to Bacon

Nishan Buyukian (from the Charshamba district in the province of Trebizond) first arrived in America in 1907. He soon settled in Fresno, California. By the time of the 1910 census, he appears with the last name changed to Bacon (a phonetic variation of Buyukian). This name change occurred after his arrival, not at Ellis Island. He went back to Turkey and brought his family to Fresno in 1914. In this ship manifest, we see both names (Buyukian and Bacon), since he had already anglicized his name. In subsequent records, it is apparent that Nishan and his family standardized on Bacon.

Image courtesy Mark Arslan


Bouloudian to Cloud

Mihertad Bouloudian (from Van) came with his family to America in 1898, arriving in Fresno, California by 1900. On the ship manifest, the surname is Bouloudian, but the surname on records over the next few decades in America alternates between Bouloudian and Cloud. (The root bulut means cloud in Turkish.) When Mihertad’s son Hurach (George) petitioned for naturalization in 1917, he formally requested his name be changed to George Hurach Cloud.

Image courtesy Mark Arslan



The form and spelling of names fluctuated in these early records, as we see time and time again. It wasn’t until the immigrants participated in government programs like naturalization, passports, and Social Security (Act of 1935) that the names became “fixed” as we know today. Still, those of us with Armenian surnames (or some remnant, like Arslan) have our names mispronounced/misspelled on a daily basis.

Unlike some other countries, the U.S. government did not mandate (or prohibit) personal names that people used. The changes to Armenian names were made by the immigrants themselves after their arrival, according to preference.

My own paternal grandfather Dikran Arslanian came to America in 1906. He was known as Dick (sometimes Richard). He alternated his last name between Arslan and Arslanian. He married a French-Canadian woman in Yakima, Washington in 1918 and had seven children born between 1918 and 1934. The family arrived in Fresno around 1932. His five sons (all born in America) and their families went by Arslan, Arslanian, and Lyons (from the Turkish root aslan or arslan, meaning lion). My father shortened it to Arslan before I was born. When I asked him about it, he said there was a lot of “racial” prejudice against Armenians in Fresno, and he wanted to assimilate by having a less foreign-sounding name.

Armenians in the diaspora in America (of this era) changed their names for a number of reasons, and in a number of different ways, but assimilation was probably a primary motive. The name changes were not imposed by the government, certainly not at Ellis Island. Researching an Armenian family’s name transitions in primary source records (as in the Armenian Immigration Project) is the best way to understand the timing and form of the change in name for your own family.

Mark Arslan is a 2nd-generation American whose paternal grandfather immigrated to the United States in 1906 from the district of Keghi in the province of Erzurum. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Forestry from Oregon State University. Mark is retired from a 35-year career in systems engineering, technical support, and sales with IBM. He started researching his own Armenian roots in 1971, established the Armenian DNA Project in 2005, and expanded his research of Armenian genealogy to include the entire North American diaspora (for the period prior to 1930) with the Armenian Immigration Project database. Mark is a regular contributor to the Armenian Genealogy group on Facebook and frequently travels across America to lecture on his research into Armenian immigration.

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  1. I find it interesting that Mark’s grandfather came from Keghi and that is where my father was from. When people would ask where my parents were from and I said my dad was from Keghi, no one had ever heard of it. But now that I read that it was a part of the province of Erzurum, everyone has heard of Erzurum! I am so happy I read this article and now I can explain actually where he was from. Keghi must have been a small city that is why it is not known as much as Kharpetsi, etc. Excuse the spelling.

  2. Interesting that you mentioned Chaderjian as a turkish root Armenian name. My grandfather changed his name in Istanbul prior to the genocide to the Armenian Daghavarian. Chader and Daghavar mean feast or tent. We are proud of him, Nazaret Daghavarian, for this and many other reasons. He was always courageous and proud of his identity and gave his life for it in 1915. Thanks for this enlightening article about the diaspora name changes

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