Genealogy Research,  How To

You Suspect Your Ancestor Changed His Name – Now What?

 

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!

William and Clara Haley of Halifax County, VA

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

DEATH CERTIFICATE

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.

William Haley Death Certificate

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.

CENSUS RECORDS

William was not born at the time of the 1860 census.  No S.C. Haley is found in census for this time.  There is a Stephen Hailey (age 21) living in the home of Jesse Hailey in the Northern District of Halifax County, VA.  He was working as a farm laborer and is listed as being born in VA.   No Triple family was found in the 1860 census record for this area. There is a Mary A [Ann] Tribble age 21 living in the home of Matthew and Mary Tribble in the Northern District of Halifax County.

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**

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It happens. Ancestors DID change their names sometimes. 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?!

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32 Comments

    • LisaL

      Interesting! Do you think he was trying to Americanize his name? I’m always fascinated by the reasons a person changed their name.

  • Patricia Reynolds

    Very little is known about my great grandfather who was supposedly from Olney, Illinois, and came to Arkansas where he met and married my great grandmother, Iola Meadows, whose family had also come to Arkansas from Olney, Illinois. His name was Benjamin Franklin Bailey and he is thought to have been born about 1867. They had one child, my grandfather, Ralph Fleming Bailey. The story goes that Benjamin got in a poker game and gambled away his employer’s mule team and wagon load of cotton, and fled for fear of being hanged. Family says great grandmother got 2 letters from him, from Mississippi and/or Louisiana maybe, and he said he was working and would send for her and the child, but he had been very ill. He was never seen or heard from again as far as the family knows. I’m at a loss to know where to look, I have exhausted all my ideas and haven’t found a trace of him other than in a census from 1870. I wonder if he changed his name and if so, if there would be any way to find his trail.

  • Sheri Ramirez

    I am really interested in this topic. My gggf is a mystery and I have wondered if he changed his name. However, after struggling to read the nearly invisible print, I gave up. Am I the only person who finds light gray against white difficult?

  • Tina

    Love the detail on how you tracked and analyzed the records! Very helpful! I’ve experienced a lot of name swapping, John Edward using Edward John or Ann Marie going as Marie Ann. On Official documents these family members use their given names but the Oral Histories and records like the census seem to be their other name. Then I’m entering them by their legal name and older family enter them as known in oral history. What fun!

    Thanks for passing on your knowledge & experiences!

  • Tina

    Another thought: do you record who the informant was on the death certificate? I haven’t been, but I am rethinking that after reading your blog. It may help with the timeline if that informant and help decide how much credence to give to the given facts.

    • LisaL

      Tina, I do record the name of the informant on a death certificate. Just for the reason you give, if I don’t know who the informant is in relationship to the deceased, I find out.

  • Sharon Reif

    Hi Lisa, I DO remember this case from our ProGen class together. That was a very interesting story, indeed. I, too, have lots of AKAs in my family tree. Great Uncle Salvatore was better known as Willie. Grandma Salvatora was better known as Duda, Rosie and few other similar names. There are so many more. It does make things funny when you read obits of these people, and family ends up saying, “Who the heck is Salvatore?” Fun stuff. Sharon REIF

  • Phyllis

    Hi Lisa, This is a great ‘tutorial” for me – after I had the consultation with you recently, I began re-reading all the family correspondence I had regarding my “brick wall”, my husband’s grandfather. I began by making a list of all the facts, as well as the hints. Now, as I work through each hint, I am able to see other ideas and, as you suggested, checking out neighborhoods on the census records and other documents. Thanks for some additional ideas. You are such an encouragement! Thanks!

  • Debbie

    Very interesting article. I have an AKA with my ggg-grandfather, Jacob Tyson. He came to East TN in the 1830s and lived until 1900 as Jacob Tyson. While researching him, I got copies of his military records from the 1830s and included were many affidavits of those who knew him, claiming he had come to TN from Buncombe Co, NC and his real name was Jacob Stafford. My brick wall is I can find no records of a Jacob Stafford in Buncombe Co, NC. He also has a brother in these affidavits named Henry Hampton (not sure why all different last names!). I have found no information on a Henry Hampton and haven’t found a single document or record indicating a Jacob Stafford. Not sure how to proceed at this point!

  • Lynda

    My husband changed his name about the late ’50’s. Over a period of time, he told several different stories about the where & why. We met & married Nov/Dec 1960, l did not know him at the time of the name change. I am documenting it in my records.

  • Barbara B

    On my mother’s side, my great-grandfather always said that his father changed his last name when he got to St. Stephens, Canada. None of his children could ever find out (even my ggf Harry). He came by boat in the early 1880’s. For some reason, he picked the name Woodard. He was from Scotland.

    • LisaL

      Sometimes we have no clue why an ancestor picked their name. I wonder if they just pick a name they like the sound of it or if they pick a name of someone they admired.

  • Connie

    My great grandfather changed his last name from Frojd to Freydenfelt. I don’t
    know if he changed his name before or after he entered the USA.

  • Anne

    I only know the name that my grandfather used, I do not know what his name was before. I think he thought if he changed his name he wouldn’t be deported back to Canada. I would be interested in finding out what his real name was.

    • LisaL

      Anne, Any idea what part of Canada he was from? I wonder if he would have used a different form of his original name. DNA testing may help you link to a surname.

  • Margaret

    My mother says that either her grandfather or great-grandfather changed their last name from Murphy to Murray when they immigrated to England from Ireland. I think it was her grandfather, but am not totally sure.
    With Murphy and Murray being very common names in Ireland & England, it is difficult to find information for him. I know he married Sarah Cooper of Cooper’s Dairy in Manchester, but that is all.
    It could have been her great-grandfather when her grandfather was still young. It is a bit discouraging not being able to trace that particular line. For all I know, she could be wrong and he was always a Murray.

    What would you do in this situation?

    • LisaL

      Margaret, that’s a tough research question! Research each generation – her grandfather and great-grandfather – thoroughly. Research deep and re-create their lives. Track their use of surnames. Also, track who may have immigrated with them. The goal is to be able to recognize your ancestor(s) by their movements and who they associated with regardless of which name they used. Y-DNA testing is another option.

  • Lea Ann

    Names are an issue in every branch of my family! My grandfather’s birth name in Poland is Walenty Panek. We have his Polish birth certificate. His name on census and other record then varies. It’s Walenty, Valentine (which is the English translation) and William. He used Walenty on his first marriage license, but William on his second marriage (to my grandmother). I have multiple documents confirming all. I have one who changed his name from Otto Kaminski to Otto Stone. We have no idea why. I’ve been trying to find documents, but before rrading your article I didn’t know folks could just start using a new name without filling some legal documentation. The German side uses all kinds of different names. They have multiple children with the same first name who then use middle name or variants. So there are brothers Karl Charles, Karl Fredrick and Karl Henry who then go by Charles, Fred and Henry. Names are also “Americanized”. Stanislaus becomes Stephen. Makes it all very challenging.

  • Demelza

    This is my uphill battle, trying to find out why my Great Grandfather changed his name and lied about where he was born. Huge mystery, one that I feel like I am running out of options. It must have been a big secret to lie to your wife and children and take that secret to the grave.

    • LisaL

      That it the hardest! My great grandfather did change his name, but at least he stayed around so we know about him. Never have figured out why the change.

  • Samw

    My great grandmother was a British stage actress and dancer performing in Europe & possibly US? I have seen some official documents for her, but we dont know what her stage name was, so unable to find any media records. Incidentally, her first and second names were very common in the late 1800s 🙁

    • LisaL

      How interesting! You might want to try a google image search for her to see if you find any matches. They might give clues to her stage name.

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