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The problem of names

A common problem encountered when researching the history of pre-World War II immigrants to the United States is variation in the spelling of both given and surnames. For Latvian immigrants, the changes (or the adoption of completely new names) often were the result of a desire for simplification or for Anglicization, especially as many individuals were accustomed to spellings influenced by the German language and of the Gothic alphabet that was used in Latvia into the 1920s. In some cases, such as among Latvians who had taken an active role in the 1905 Revolution, name changes were needed to elude the authorities.

Thus, a surname that today would be spelled Vītols was written as Wihtol — or upon arrival to the U.S. might be translated to Willow; Schmidt (Šmits) might become Smith; or Behrsinsch (Bērziņš) might become Bersing or Birch. Latvian-American civic leader and editor Kristaps Rusinskis became Christopher Roos. Baptist poet Krišjānis Nātre adopted Christian Nather. An immigrant to Philadelphia, Ansis Egle, engaged in verbal shape-shifting, changing from a spruce (the Latvian egle) to a bird of prey (the English eagle).

Given names, especially among men, also frequently were modified. For example, Jahnis (Jānis) became John; Ansis became Hans; and Amālija became Emily.

Sometimes, these changes were recorded in naturalization petitions and thus became part of the official — and therefore traceable — record. However, it appears that more common was the case that new names were simply adopted, resulting in a greater challenge when trying to identify individuals in historical documents.