It happens. Ancestors DID change their names sometimes.
Perhaps they did not like their name. Perhaps they were tired of being confused with another person with the same name. Perhaps they needed to create a new identity. (Perhaps they wanted to confuse future researchers!)
Whatever the reason, changing one’s name from the early 1900’s back was really quite simple. One just started using their new name of choice.
But what can you as a genealogy researcher do?!
You have some options. Just be prepared this is not a quick process and you will stretch your research muscles. That’s a good thing!
Let’s take a look at William H. Haley of Halifax and Charlotte Counties, VA.
(This is based on the research report I completed as part of the ProGen Study Group 11.)
Were William Henry Haley and George W. Haley the same man?
William Haley “disappeared” from the records prior to 1883. Despite hours of research, William’s no evidence of William’s existence prior to 1833 could be found. Obviously, he was somewhere! Oral history and William’s earliest known record of existence were the starting point to re-construct William’s early life. [Note: William H Haley was my Great Great Grandfather.]
Oral History Can Hold Clues To An Ancestors Name Change
Oral history for William’s life after his 1883 marriage and until his death is strong and abundant. At the time of my research, many of William’s grandchildren are still living and passing on their knowledge of his life. Unfortunately, those mentioned in this post have since passed away.
Anita Carr Talbott and Percy Owen (grandchildren of William Haley) provided much of the oral history of William Haley. Both grandchildren knew William Haley personally well into their early adult years. Neither knew with certainty the name of his parents. Percy reported that the Tribble family is “somehow related”, but he was unsure of the exact relationship.
Both descendants reported William (known as Will) Haley lived all his life in Halifax and Charlotte Counties, VA. As a young man William worked on the Clarkton Plantation as a laborer and married the overseer’s daughter Clara Holt. William went on to become the overseer of Clarkton Plantation after his father-in-law’s death. Both Haley grandchildren also reported that the Haley surname at times was spelled Hailey.
One last clue in the family’s oral history came from Dorothy Adams Haley, wife of William’s son Clyde. Dorothy reported that William Haley’s father was Cas (pronounced with a short “a” sound as in “cat”).
Looking At The Records
William Haley died 4 March 1948 in Charlotte County, VA. His death certificate reveals his full name to be William Henry Haley and his birth date was 22 Dec 1861. His father is listed as Kays Haley and his mother as Ann Triple. Both were born in Halifax County, VA. The informant on the death certificate was George Nichols, son-in-law of William Haley. [George Nichols was the husband of William’s daughter Daisy Haley.]
One thing that is important to consider it the death certificate is considered a secondary resource. Was the informant someone who knew the deceased well? Would he have had accurate information on William’s parents? Use the information on death certificates as clues if the informant would not have had first hand knowledge of all generations.
THE MARRIAGE RECORD
An 1883 marriage registration record shows William H. Haley married Clara Holt in Halifax County, VA. This information would have been provided by William and Clara and is considered a strong source. The marriage registration record for this couple names William’s parents as S. C. and M. A. Haley. All parties were from Halifax County, VA. The discrepancy between William’s father name of Kays on the death certificate versus S. C. in the marriage registration continued to cause confusion. Confirmation of William’s parents was needed to determine if George Haley and William Haley are indeed the same person.
In the 1870 census William Haley would have been 9 years old. No William Haley is found in the 1870 federal census matching the William Haley in question. There is a George Haley (Hailey) age 9 in the household of Stephen (age 28) and Mary (age 28) Hailey in Staunton Township of Halifax County, VA. Stephen and Mary are living next door to Matthew and Mary Tribble. This is the same Haley family enumerated in 1880 as the S. C. Haley family based on consistent neighbors in both census records. Neighbors in 1880 also included Mary Tribble, mother-in-law to Stephen Haley.
S. C. Haley is now determined to be Stephen C. Haley.
William Haley (approximately age 18 or 19) is not found on the 1880 federal census of any state. George W Haley (age 18) is found to be living in the household of James F Guthrie in the Staunton District of Halifax County, VA. George W Haley is listed as a farm laborer on the Guthrie farm. The Guthrie household is number 31. The household of Stephen C. Haley is 194 in the same district. Neighbors of the Haleys again included Mary Tribble, mother of Mary A Haley. This is the first record to show Stephen or S. C. Haley as being Stephen C. Haley.
This 1880 census shows George Haley living out of the household of Stephen C. Hailey and working as a farm laborer on another farm. This census also gives George’s middle initial as W. Could George’s middle name have been William? George is also listed as the same age as William would be. Interestingly, both S. C. and M. A. Haley went by their middle names as did several of their children.
Could they have continued the tradition with their son George?
By the 1900 census George Haley no longer shows up in the census records. William Haley (age 38) is living in the Staunton District of Halifax County, VA with his wife Clara [Holt] Haley and 5 children. William’s age and occupation as farm laborer continue to match what George’s age and occupation would have been. Steven C Hailey and wife Mary A (both age 62) are living in the Staunton District as well.
This was still not enough to definitively state George Haley and William Haley were the same man.
Using County Heritage Books
Halifax County Virginia Heritage 1752-2007 lists Stephen C. Haley’s full name as being Stephen Caswell Haley. His nickname is listed as Kas or Cas. [The genealogy “happy dance” may have ensued at this revelation!]
This information was submitted by Haley family descendants of Stephen C. Haley through his son Robert Alexander Haley. While the entry provides no formal source citations for the facts stated, a note was added that records from the Halifax County courthouse and family stories were used. The family stories are secondary sources in nature and yet support the limited oral tradition from William Haley’s descendants regarding William’s father.
Were William H. Haley and George W. Haley the same person?
When traditional records are placed alongside the Haley family’s strong oral history, the evidence supports that they were. The “why” and “how” George became William may never be fully known. A legal proceeding was not required for a name change during that time period. Regardless of which name he chose to go by, William Haley and his wife Clara left a rich legacy of strong family bonds that continue among their many descendants today.
Your Take Away
When you research your ancestors, keep these ideas in mind:
- Research into brick wall ancestors is not quick. There is usually no one record that will provide the answer you are seeking.
- When you exhaust traditional records, think outside of the box. What other types of information and records can you find and use. These include people, written histories, personal papers, etc.
- Never trust just one source of information.
**If anyone would like to read the full proof summary, just email at Lisa[at]LisaLisson.com**