Trouble with surname change

Over 25 million Italians have emigrated between 1861 and 1960 with a migration boom between 1871 and 1915 when over 13,5 million emigrants left the country for European and overseas destinations.
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Trouble with surname change

Post by ItalianBelgian » 03 Jun 2011, 08:58

I have been researching some people on by grandmother's mother's side of my family who mirgrated from what is now Bari, Puglia to France (what is now Belgium) during the First French Empire (1804-1814) for commercial reasons. I discovered that Their surname was Mercieri by finding a marriage record from one of their descendents, but my grandmother told me she always knew the family as Mercier without the 'i' at the end.

I am quite unsure as to why my grandmother's family knew them as Mercier but I know there was not much contact with them and I do have a few ideas why this may have happened;

The Mercieri's may have changed their surname but not legally so they called themselves Mercier but were actually Mercieri and due to my grandmother's lack of communication and relationship with them she and her family were not told or did not know about their legal name.

Maybe the Mercieri's used their legal name on documents such as birth cet. or marriage cet. but despite their legal name they used Mercier in everyday life and did not want people to know about their original name. This may have been the case if they had changed their surname willingly to better integrate into French society.

I am also aware that the legal facilities to change ones surname may not have been available in the early 19th century, possibly allowing the Mercieri's to call themselves what they wanted whilst discretely keeping their original Italian surname.

Do any these of these theories sound plausable? Has anybody else had this kind of issue or have any other ideas as to why my family had this big miscommunication concerning our Italian family's surname. Any help would be greatly appreciated and any polite contribution is welcome.
Investigating the Mercieri family in West Flanders, Belgium, originally from Bari, Puglia

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Re: Trouble with surname change

Post by johnnyonthespot » 03 Jun 2011, 12:21

Hi, Miles.

We are mostly pretty polite around here. :)

There are many, many, reasons for these informal name changes; the scenarios you cited are all possible.

One that you did not mention and which is believed to have been common amongst emigrants to the US is that most Italian emigrants through the 1800's (and especially the early 1800's) were simply illiterate and had no idea how to spell, let alone write, their own names. It was also common for people to be only vaguely aware of their true birthdate as this information was of little use to the average person.

An illiterate person might be listed accurately on a passenger manifest because - especially males of military age - he had to obtain a permission to travel document from his comune or in much later years because he had to have a passport. In other cases, the the emigrant recited his name to the ship's clerk who, having a good knowledge of Italian names, spelled it correctly even if the emigrant was unable to help in that regard.

However, these same emigrants once they arrived in their new home usually needed to find work and deal with local government entities. It is now believed that this is where most name changes took place. As noted above, many of these people were illiterate and since they could not assist in the proper spelling of their names, the person with whom they were dealing would do his/her best or, in some cases, would take it upon himself to Americanize (Franco-ize?) the name.

As an example of what can happen, my mother was the last child in a large family, born in the US a dozen years after her parents and older siblings emigrated. Even so, when my mother attended local elementary school in New York, her teacher insisted that the "correct" way to write her surname was D'Iacova instead of the actual De Iacovo. My mother used this spelling for many decades and it appears on most of her official documents. Many of my mother's older siblings joined in and began using this spelling as well; all because of a teacher's insistence...

My hobby is finding things. Having found most of my own, I am happy to help others find theirs. PM me! :)

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