Red, White, and New

Published 12:06 pm Tuesday, July 1, 2014

In between buying steaks and gearing up to watch fireworks, my thoughts turn to another part of being a descendant of immigrants that touches us all.

If you’re part Spanish like me, you have a lot of roots. And not just from all the hair follicles that dot my body. I’m talking genealogy, specifically how names are spelled. My mother is a Carbo, but I’m told it didn’t start out that way.

A good many folks who crossed the Atlantic Ocean and arrived on Ellis Island, Avery Island, or any other beachhead in between in search of a better life had their names either adjusted or changed drastically by inspectors, clergy or eventual employers.

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In my family’s case, C-o-r-b-o became C-a-r-b-o and that was that. The facial hair stayed — and the way the name was spelled on my great aunt’s mailbox out in the country — but the name changed forever. I’m told Corbo became simply Corb in some other cases.

There’s example of it elsewhere. Germans who played a big role in settling the so-called “German Coast”, or La Cote des Allemands, about 40 miles west of New Orleans. German expatriates also settled my hometown of Gretna, La. They came here with names like Heidel, Schneider and Huber and ended up being Haydels, Snyders and Oubres. The French clergy who, in effect, processed folks once they arrived at the Port of New Orleans liked to keep things simple, I guess.

It was much the same story up at Ellis Island, perhaps the busiest port of entry of any nation in world history. Prior to 1906, names were changed based on any characteristic an inspector could latch onto. An essay posted on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website retells a story about a man from a Slavic nation who simply nodded and smiled each time an inspector asked his name. From that point on, he was a Smiley. In 1906, Congress intervened and said all surname changes must go through the court system to be official.

To go further with all this, there’s the Name Index to Bureau of Naturalization Correspondence. Once I get enough spare time in life, it would be great to peruse the 140,000 index cards on 19 rolls of microfilm at the immigration history library in Washington, D.C. It essentially a partial activity report of those who asked the Naturalization Service about nationality or citizenship between 1906 and 1944. It’s a good way to track whether certain surnames were changed.

My surname has its roots in Great Britain and, as I’ve said in previous columns, that there’s some Irish and French in my genealogical attic. The door to that attic is, in a manner of speaking, is 100 percent American.

When Friday comes remember the ingredients of our patriotism. And savor the steak that it’s helped create. It’s the best on Earth.

Danny Barrett is a reporter and can be reached by email at or by phone at 601-636-4545.