Do you suspect your ancestor changed their name? It's possible! Explore genealogy tips and strategies to trace that ancestor. #genealogy #ancestors
Genealogy Research,  How To Trace Your Family Tree

You Suspect Your Ancestor Changed His Name – Now What?

Sometimes an ancestor changed his name. Genealogy tips for dealing with name changes in your family tree and finding that ancestor.

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 or were hiding from the law.

(Perhaps they wanted to confuse future researchers!)

Whatever the reason, changing a family surname from the early 1900’s back was really quite simple.  One just started using their new name of choice.  Researchers are not likely to find a formal record for that name change. It just wasn’t needed.

When this happens, researching ancestry by a last name becomes, well, complicated. 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!

3 Genealogy Research Strategies To Try If You Suspect Your Ancestor Changed His Name

Let’s take a close up look at William Henry Haley of Charlotte County, VA – my ancestor who changed his name.

(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, 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.]

1.Oral History Can Hold Clues To An Ancestor Name Change

Oral history for William’s life after his 1883 marriage and until his death in the 1940’s is strong and abundant. At the time of this research project, many of William’s  grandchildren were 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.  Interestingly, neither knew with certainty the name of his parents.  Percy reported that the Tribble family was “somehow related”, but he was unsure of the exact relationship.

Photo of Anita Carr Haley - 1938 photo wearing hat and corsage
Anita Carr Talbott

Both descendants reported William (known as Will to family and friends) 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 even married the overseer’s daughter Clara Holt.  William went on to become the overseer of Clarkton Plantation after the death of his father-in-law Branch W. Holt.  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”). Beyond that tiny clue, Dorothy did not know if Cas was a nickname or any more about him.

That’s okay. I’d take any clue and all clues!

1890's black and white photo of Haley family with parents standing in back and 5 children sitting. William Haley changed his name.
William Haley Family

2. Take the Genealogy Research Back to the Traditional Genealogy Records.

Seek out all sources of genealogy information. Do not skip any steps here. Always view the original document when possible. The extra effort is crucial. For example, you may already know your ancestor’s death date and location from another source, but get that death certificate anyway!


William Haley died 4 March 1948 in Charlotte County, VA.  From family present at his death and newspaper articles about his death, I knew his date of death and the circumstances surrounding his death. His death certificate was still sought!

That 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.]

Hmmm…. Kays Haley and Ann Triple. Yes, these are important clues! Keep reading.

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.

Death certificate for William H. Haley 1948
William Haley Death Certificate


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.

1883 black and white photo of Clara and William Haley. Clara is standing with hand on William shoulder. William is sitting.
William and Clara Haley – 1883


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.

Remember that Percy Haley stated the Tribble family was somehow related to the Haleys. I was on the trail!

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.

1870 census record for Staunton Township, Halifax County, VA. Census records are vital records in tracking an ancestor who changed his name.

S. C. Haley is now determined to be Stephen C. Haley.

I was getting closer, but not there yet…..

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, but I was on the way.

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3. Use County Heritage Books For Local Family Knowledge

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. Stephen Caswell Haley was known as Cas, and Cas was the father of William Haley.

[The genealogy “happy dance” may have ensued at this revelation!]

old books on a shelf. Most books brown with 2 red books and 2 black books

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.

Black and white photo of Clara and William Haley in their later years - probably 1940's. William changed his name form George to William,
William and Clara (Holt) Haley

Your Take Away for Researching Ancestors Who Changed a Name

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.

Do you suspect an ancestor changed his name? Let me know in the comments!


      • JENNIFER Richards

        My grandfather never knew his father and grew up in foster care. I am trying to see what happened to his father. He went by Kenneth then Georg. Same last name. My grandfather is 90 and I am trying to get this information to him soon. Anyone want a mystery to solve?

        • vernetta lawrence

          This is a major pain point for me in my Caribbean genealogy research. To this day it is not uncommon for people to use a completely different name than the one listed on their baptismal record. It makes it doubly complicated when the child was born to an unwed mother and took the father’s name after baptism. While I have been able to solve some of these mysteries, there are several brick walls I am currently working to break through.

        • Lindea Greenwell

          My great uncle disappeared in 1903. I have military papers showing his discharge from services in Port au Prince. I also have census records in 1900 for a hospital in same city. I have a letter from him saying he would be home at a specific date. But he never showed up. His sister tasked me with the job to continue with the search. She a dectective on her payroll until she died in 1999. I called hospital in Port au Prince and they said most records from that time period are gone. Any suggestions as to what I can do next.

    • Michael Joseph

      YES! I have hit a huge brick wall and I believe (quite strongly) it is due to a name change that occured. I cannot get passed it because everyone I keep talking to says I need “evidence” and “substantiated proof” that they are the same person. But I don’t know how to get that information…

      He suddenly appeared in Washington in 1907 and the person I thought he was disappeared in Montana in 1900.

      His extended family moved out to Washington a little bit later and then down to Portland, Oregon. Both of those times, my great-great grandfather resided in those areas.

      But I do not have any proof or evidence that they collaborated or were together or did activities together. So- I’m not sure where to look.

    • Edward Branden

      My ggf Charles Andrew Branden was born in Wurtberg Germany abt 1876. He moved to Lynn Massachusetts and married Marion Jeffrey. The marriage record says his parent’s we’re Christian and Anna. And then nothing

    • 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.

    • Christy

      My husbands grandfather changed his name. We get very confused stories about his history. How do you track a military records? He served and maybe we can get some light that way. Thank you so much – Christy

      • LisaL

        Start with the major genealogy databases and their military records. is also a good place to check. Some libraries have Fold3 free for patrons, so be sure to check your local library if you do not have it.

  • 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.

  • Heather

    My Aunt was born in 1945 in Canada. We are unsure of her father’s name ( there are family rumors). Gma and Aunt came to the states in the mid-1950s after Gma married my Gpa. Aunt was adopted by my Gpa. Gma, Aunt and Gpa have all since passed away. I am now searching for any trace of my Aunt in Canada and can’t find anything. Any thoughts or idea on where to look? I can find my Gma in the 1945 Canadian Census but no mention of a child and she still had her maiden name.

    • LisaL

      That’s always a tough research question. Maybe check immigration records for the aunt to see if a birth name was given. Also, are there collateral relations still living you can interview? You may need to seek them out. If you are able, search the Canandian birth records for a 5 year old girl with her first name in the right location. Best of luck!

  • George-Anne Kaines

    One of my husband’s great uncles changed his name from Adolph von Truer to the anglicised Percy Trevor at the time of the 1914-18 war because of anti-German sentiment in his community.

  • Pam Day

    My Great, Great, Great Grandfather William D. Falkner changed his last name to Fortner. The name that was used on his obituary was B. L. Fortner.

  • Laura

    Name changes and missing parents are so challenging! My GGM did not know who her MOTHER was! Her death certificate states “Mother Unknown” with information given by my GGF who was married to her for 60+ years. My grandmother, mother and aunt (who lived with them all their lives) all support this fact.

    To complicate matters, GGM also always stated that her father was not a Williams (her maiden name) but a Lloyd and that he was adopted by the Williams family when he was young. GGGF’s death certificate lists father as Mr. Lloyd and mother unknown! Information provided by his adult son.

    I continue to work to figure out who these missing mothers are, but it is a challenge.

  • Marti

    An ancestor was Josiah he enlisted in the civil war and was listed as Joseph S. After he came home some listing was Joe Sire, which is a slurred Josiah. Some times it is the uneducated tongue that causes the problem. Another Melvina is listed by family as Melly Viney. Happy hunting.

  • Sandy Parks

    I was working on my Mom’s biological family & my 2nd great grandma’s Find a Grave memorial stated that her husband, herself and her two oldest children (both boys)had taken the name (Crompton) as an alias. The 3 males were all baptized under the surname “Burke” prior to them coming to the states. I was a little put back. Now I have to find these men back in England. If you have any tips on that, I would greatly appreciate it.

    • LisaL

      First, familiarize yourself with genealogy research and records in the UK. It’s a bit different than in the U.S. In the records, look for the Burke men either in the same household or in close proximity to each other. This will help ensure you have the correct men. Also, seek out a Facebook group focused on UK research where you can ask specific questions about UK records, etc.

  • EJ Adorno

    I have a 6th great grandfather who seems to have dropped in out of thin air and populated the Americas. He left France, was rumored to be a sea faring trader, rumor is a vessel crashed and he and his brother ended up on different islands. Great grand married on St Thomas had a few children then moved his family to PR. He exists on St Thomas and in PR as Mauricio, wife passes he remarries has lots more kids. Before 2nd marriage his name changed to Santiago, his 1st wife also changed her name, well documented in kids records and her family’s documents travel sponsorship etc. Postmortem the surname obtains an additional “s” he always claimed his father was Jean his mother’s name and their surname were spelled various ways due to phonetics. No record of him or mystery brother in France anywhere. 20 relations here to CA searching for over 20 years to no avail. The mystery of Gueit.

    • LisaL

      What a mystery!n I’m curious if you have tried DNA testing and have any matches that could lead back to France. You might want to consider consulting with a genetic genealogist.

  • Catherine Spry

    I have a great grandmother who was definitely hiding from something. Her & her sister just appear in 1910 census in Arkansas with a man they said was their father, Jerry Fitzgerald. But they were most definitely not of Irish decent. I remember as a child visiting her quite often (we lived in same town) and wondering how come she looked like a indian, when we were not? She never would cut her hair, and always wore her gray hair in one scrawny braid which reached below her waist & was then wrapped around itself & pinned into a bun. Her completion was a bit darker than all her grandchildren’s, & she was very short (abt 4 ft 5″) and bow legged. She chewed tobacco constantly, and had a metal bracelet on her ankle which looked to have no way to take off, like it was one piece. And she never did take it off; ever. My mom asked her (also her grandmother) when she was young why she always wore it, & she said she wore it because of her arthritis. Mom also told me she asked her what nationality they were one time, and she said they were Black Dutch.
    Anyway, nothing on any of the 3 prior to 1910. It was like they just appeared there. The girls said their mother died abt 1899 (when my grandmother was only 2 yrs old), & was buried in Cotton Plant, Arkansas although no proof of this has ever been found. My great grandmother told one of her daughter’s that her mother’s name was Mary Jane Watkins, but told another daughter that her name was Mary Hanks. A third daughter claims she was told that her mom’s family was Native American. And every single record we have for her, she changes her age, and her parents birth place. And, she supposedly filed for a delayed birth certificate in Auvergne, Arkansas when she filed for SSN, however when we tried to order copy, we were told that they had no such record for her there.

    My mom has been working on trying to find out where she came from for more than 30 years, & I joined her in trying to locate where great grandma Stella really came from about 10 yrs back. Mom has also had MtDNA test done a few years ago, but has been unable to connect to even one of the matches, as of yet. I am sure that her last name was not really Fitzgerald, just as I am also sure we have absolutely no idea what her real surname was.

    I have one other relative that changed his name but we know why he did that, “as bigamy, even in the early 1900’s is considered a serious crime”, stated a Scotland newspaper that published notice of his crime and punishment of 2 yrs years jail time.

    Yep, I have to agree, that why our ancestors changed their names range from one end of the spectrum, to the other, and each carrying a fascinating story behind it.

  • JeanR

    I have a great uncle who dropped off the face of the earth after leaving his wife and five children in 1928. She filed for divorce the following year. He couldn’t be found by the court, last known address was Springfield, IL. When his son died in WWII in 1944, there is no mention of him in the obituary. No records (census, military, vital, directories, etc.) mention him after 1922. A brother’s obit in 1948 mentioned he was living in Chicago, but I don’t know if that was true. No death certificate for him can be found in Illinois, or nearby states. I think he did not want to be found.

    • LisaL

      I think you are correct. It’s tough for us as researchers, though. Earlier in history, an individual could easily change their identity and start a new life elsewhere.

    • Edward Branden

      My ggf Charles Andrew Branden was born in Wurtberg Germany abt 1876. He moved to Lynn Massachusetts and married Marion Jeffrey. The marriage record says his parent’s we’re Christian and Anna. And then nothing

  • Patti

    My maternal grandmother had five siblings, two brothers and three sisters. Their surname was Bauer. Family oral history revealed that both boys changed their surname from Bauer to Evans but we were never sure why. So far, I have been able to determine that both worked as stagehands at one of the big theatres in Philadelphia and that the name change occurred sometime between 1910 and 1920 as the surname appears differently on the Census records from those years. Those lines of the family always remained Evans and I’m working to make contact with their direct descendants to see if anyone has further details to share as all six from that generation have passed. We assumed it might have something to do with German heritage and/or their jobs since only the boys changed the name but would love to solve the mystery for my Mom.

  • Carol

    This is fascinating. My sister and I have been trying to find out about our paternal grandfather and where he came from (he told everyone he ran away from home as a boy –claimed he had ‘bad parents’. He told us he was Scottish and English. Neither is true as I had a DNA test. Turns out I have 35% Ashkenazi Jewish in my DNA–a total shock. So now we pretty much have it down to our paternal grandfather (we know his wife– our paternal grandma, came from Austria and was Orthodox Russian Catholic). Our maternal side is mostly Italian and a little German (our 94 year old mom took a DNA test!). We now strongly suspect our grandfather changed his name (his name was Fred Reed)– certainly not a Jewish name- and we are pretty certain the Ashkenazi was from him. We found his 1917 WW1 draft record, his marriage, 1919 and 30’s census with kids etc… Nothing at all prior to the draft–cannot find any birth record. So–this is one reason we think he changed his name– Any ideas where we can search? TIA:)

  • Melissa C

    Pretty certain my Maternal Great-Grandmother made up her/their name which was Sawyer. Adding to that, I have the Sawyer name on my paternal side. But perhaps that’s a good thing, because I can see those Sawyers 100% match my paternal side. I have zero Sawyer matches or matches of matches that are on my maternal side. Further, she said her maiden name was Quigley and again, I have no matches or matches of matches to that name and can only find her (if it was even her) in the US Census in 1930, living in Philadelphia with the Little Sisters of Charity. Another conundrum is that I’m seeing matches to quite a few of French Canadians. And that can only be on my mother’s side (surprise!) because the rest of the branches are accounted for. I have no idea how to figure out their names. *sigh*

  • Maggie May

    My 3rd great grandfather, born in England, was illegitimate. His mother had filed a bastardy bond and the court judged that the purported father could show no evidence that he was not the father. My 3rd great grandfather was baptized with his father’s surname as the “spurious” child of his mother (she never married the purported father). When my 3rd great grandfather married, he used his father’s surname. When he baptized his children, he used his mother’s surname. All the children were baptized into the Church of England on the same day with ages ranging from 9 yrs to infancy. Which surname do I record for these children in my family tree?

    • LisaL

      Maggie, there is no right or wrong here. I typically record the surname as it appears in most records for the family tree. When attaching records, I always use the name as it appears on the record itself. I also attach note to the profile explaining about the name change/variation.

      • Richard Blanton

        We did find an additional piece of info. In 1921 Marvin Coign enlisted in Army. Was at Louisville KY then Camp Dix NJ where he was courtmartialed and dishonorably discharged. Do not know whether it entailed any prison time or if he was just discharged. We have found nothing after this time.

  • Rich

    Helping a friend with her familty tree. She has a Great Uncle who according to family lore left home and changed his name. This what we know for fact: Marvin Coin born 1 Feb 1905 in McLean County KY. We track in in 1910 & 1920 census in McLean. We have a 1921 school census for McLean County. We found a VA Master Index Card where his name was spelled Coign . . . gives a service number but no dates of enlistment or discharge. He was too young for WWI and too old for WWII at time it broke out. Assuming he was Army, all personnel records destroyed in 1973 fire.

    Family Lore stories: (1) He left home in tiff of family not providing money . . . believe early 1920s. (2) Believed he changed his name . . . to what not sure; some thing White. (3) Reported his mother contact the War Department asking where her son was (do no know timeframe) and was told his was in The Philippines. (4) An uncle in law enforcement sometime in 1960s supposedly tracked Marvin down in Ohio (specifically where unknown) where Marvin declared he wanted nothing to do with family.

    Any suggestions where she can new info?

    • LisaL

      This is always a tough search. If not already, perform newspaper research and city directory research. If you know his occupation, that can help narrow things down a bit. Also, possibly check the “old man’s draft” cards for WWII.

      • Richard Blanton

        Update. We did find that he joined the Army serving first in Louisvill K then Camp New NJ. Found muster roll stating he was courtmatialed while Dix in 1921 . . . don’t know for what or what the sentence was. So far found nothing in newspapers, etc. 1973 fire at Nat’l Military Personnel Center in St Louis MO apparently destroyed all records. Trying to figure where to go from here.

  • New Leaf

    I have definitely determined that a direct paternal ancestor changed his name to something that vaguely resembles his maternal grandmother’s maiden name. So…

    Should I now change my surname? I am male and post-manapausal (fwiw). I believe that I should. I am not some made up name. I know who I am now!


  • Karen Wooley

    I am helping my son-in-law ‘s father do a tree.
    On the discussion of name change:
    I found a great aunt born 8 Jan 1897 birth name was Desire Dusablon born in Illinois.
    I also found a a great aunt born the same date named Edna Dusablon born in Illinois.
    Her father was Desire Dusablon born in Canada.
    Mother was Clara Provost of Canada.
    They were registered on 25 Jul 1941 44 years later.
    The certificate numbers were 72524 and 82524…1000 certificates apart.
    There is a brick wall on aunt Desire.
    No mention of twins.
    My only assumption is Desire changed her name to Edna in 1941 due to confusion/dislike of the same name as her father.
    Any thoughts?

  • Loralee

    Your blog post is so timely!
    After 15 years of being stuck regarding my g-grandfather, Frank M. SMITH, some DNA cousins (matches) think they have the answer:
    Frank died in 1894, based on my g-gandmother’s pension application (which she was able to get through her first husband). All of these high DNA matches have a Frederick McKinley SMITH in their well-documented trees. According to the aforementioned documentation, their Frederick just suddenly appeared in 1894 and married their g-grandmother. Furthermore, this Frederick’s children look A LOT like my grandfather and his sister – who would be their half-siblings!
    So we all think (but haven’t proven yet) that my Frank M. became their Frederick McKinley! (Oh, and their Frederick ran off and abandoned that family, which seems to show a pattern of abandonment – the cad!!!)

  • Rebecca Hasie


    • LisaL

      This is certainly a difficult area to research without having a true understanding of the boundary changes and the shifts in the political and economic landscapes. Be careful on assuming a name change took place without evidence. You may want to consult a genealogy researcher who specializes in that area for research.

  • Kathy

    I just found this post. I am trying to untangle records for a great great grandmother. I was given her name as Kittie LaBrague but I have found a Catherine Brague born the right year in the right area of CT. If this is the right person her mother was Catherine too, which would explain the Kittie nickname. And, there appears to be another branch of the family where the parents’ last name is Brague but all of the children use LABRAGUE. Have you seen that before? Why would a family or an individual do that? Usually people shorten their names, not lengthen them. Thank you.

    • LisaL

      Yes, I’ve seen variations on surnames from one line to another. Usually I don’t ever really know the reason, but if the other facts line up, you can be confident in your research.

      • Deborah Wigen-Noble

        Between 1908 and 1914, could someone in the US simply change their name without having to do this legally? My grandfather was born with one name and birth year (1873), between 1907 and 1914 (when he married my grandmother), he had a different name and birth year. The story goes that he changed his name due to “gambling debts but his father paid them off” (per my mother). However, his father died when my grandfather was 23 (in 1896) AND my grandfather was in an Arizona jail in 1907 for one month with his birth name and his mother paid bad check debts off. Between Dec 1907 (jail release) and 1914 (married my grandmother in WA state) I cannot find any records on him. I am guessing he was in jail in California (where he grew up) before he went on a bad check spree in 1907 in Arizona, and when his mother paid his jail fees off, he likely went back to California but then who knows. I can’t find him in the 1910 federal census, or any California censuses after 1906. Only until he married my grandmother in 1914 in WA state, with his new name and birth year, do we find him again. And then he’s in the federal censuses and has a job. Any suggestions on where to look to bridge that gap (1907 – 1914)? Per the AZ county records, they don’t keep jail records from that long ago. Since he lived in California at least until 1906, I’ve tried to locate any potential records (arrest, jail, court) but nothing. Help!

        • LisaL

          Yes, it was easy to change a name during that time period. No real legal process required. Try doing searches without a surname and/or name at all. Use birth date, possible locations, and occupation as parameters. See if anyone looks like a potential candidate that way.

  • Mary Stevens

    My uncle, Samuel Franklin Grimes, was sent to Brushy Mtn State Pen in Tn. for 4 years for stealing a suit of clothes, a pair of shoes, & a loaf of bread. He broke out of prison headed west. He changed his name to Frank Lacey. he sent two letters to his mother ( my grandmother), he sent them to a neighbor who gave them to my grandmother. In one he had joined the Navy and in the second one he had married and letter was postmarked Green River Wyoming. He was working, had married and was fat and happy. This was in early 1900’s and so far as has been told never heard from again. They have closed that prison and turned it into a tourist place and have said ” no one ever broke out of that prison without being caught” Wrong! James Earl Raye was in that prison. have always wondered about him.

  • kkb

    I’ve creating a research tree that includes 33 DNA matches and a near-certain identity of the biological father of someone I am working with. The identified man is well-documented up until the year he disappears. For 4 months, he is listed in military records as AWOL, whereabouts unknown. Then, nothing. 24 years later he fathers a child 6 time zones away, who has taken a DNA test. As a result of FAN’ing his sister (who appears to have had no children) and people she traveled with, I have an idea of where he went immediately after the AWOL. I have searched ships’ manifests for the year of conception for real and similar names, without success. I feel certain he changed his name and don’t know where to go from here. Suggestions welcomed.

    • LisaL

      That’s a tough one! Sometimes you can pick a lead up by their occupation, especially if it is unusual. Also, look at who is around him. Does anyone seems to usually appear close to him in the records/ship manifests?

  • Michael Cooper

    My great grandfather just turns up in West Ham, London, UK in 1891 on the Census. I cant find any record of him at where it says he was born or year. The census shows he was a border at the house at the time. I can track him through to his death in 1924 but his year of birth changes on a regular basis and his marriage certificate suggests his father had the same name but as its Samuel Cooper then its a common name.

    The story passed down in the family is he ran away from the law but I cant prove it. Not helped that my grandad was only 10 when his fatehr died so he never really knew him.

    The article has inspired me to research him some more. Would love to solve the mystery

    • LisaL

      That’s an interesting story, Michael! See if you can discover his occupation in the records. That can help you sort him out from others with his same name. Good luck as you continue to research it.

  • James Chaney

    Thanks for the research infomation, that helps out alot. My question is, what name would you put or suggest in the family (i.e. for the ancestor? The new name or the original spelling? My gggrandfather changed the spelling from what his father’s name was (Stryker => Striker).

    • LisaL

      James, great question! When searching I use both names and all variations in between. On the family tree I list the name they used predominantly throughout their life. I also add an AKA fact on the tree as well.

  • Penny

    I know that more or less my father’s entire family, in the United Kingdom of GB, changed their surname from Fernandez to Henshaw up to 1940. I have documents for most of this. What I however don’t know is why. It was all kept strictly secret from me and all subsequent family. And I don’t know why that was either. So the facts I know, but where can I find out why? It was kept a shameful secret. Why?

  • Andrea E McNally

    In 1914 my grandfather named Clayton Godfrey left his wife and child in Oklahoma and went to sea. He married my grandmother and joined the army in 1917 in Brooklyn, NY as Clinton Hayes. We figured this out through DNA testing. I have a picture taken in 1917; my second cousin has a picture taken about 1913; they are obviously of the same man. What I can’t discover is why. He just disappeared in 1914 and was never heard from again. The stories he told of his youth are often true, just the names were changed. The cousin had often heard the story of his disappearance but had never heard a reason. There is no evidence of his being wanted by the law or that his marriage had soured. I keep looking. Any suggestions?

  • Jill C

    My maternal grandfather changed his name in the 1920’s to 1930. Family lore is that he was an outrider for Pancho Villa and that he changed his name after that. I have a letter that my grandmother, his wife, wrote to his brothers and sisters after his death. His death and funeral was announced with his new name. His siblings were upset that his original name was not used. She writes in the letter that he said he would tell the children, (my mother, an aunt and uncle) after they were grown. They were all grown at the time of his death, yet he had not told them the reason. They are all deceased now. My uncle only told me that my grandfather was a mean man. This same uncle also cleaned out and burnt the contents of my grandfather’s safety deposit box upon his death.

  • Mark Willibey

    My GG Grandfather changed his surname three times sometime between 1900 and 1910. There’s two stories behind the changes. The first is since he came from a strick German Catholic family, he disgraced the family somehow and changed the surname. The second change was basically a spelling error that stuck with the family to this day.

  • Sue Mawdesley

    When James Mawdesley was born on May 24, 1858, in Crossens, Lancashire, England, his father, Nicholas, was 26 and his mother, Ellen, was 23. In 1871, when James was 13, he was a servant living on Lord Street in Southport. At age 18, he married Ann Cadwell in October 1876 in Wigan, Lancashire, England. They had five children in 10 years. James is listed as a Journeyman Stone Mason on his wife’s death certificate issued from the Ormskirk Union Workhouse, Lancashire, England. In the early 1890’s, James left his Mawdesley family and assued the new name of James Thomas Sturdy. James married Elizabeth Abbott on 2 February 1898 in Neath Wales…while he was still married to Ann. Ann died in the Ormskirk Union Workhouse in 1899. James and Elizabeth Sturdy were married for 30 years and had 9 children. James traveled and worked as a successful Stone Mason and builder. He died on 21 January 1929 at age 70 in Coventry Warwickshire, England from Stonemasons pithitis, a lung disease and fibrositis and bronchitis. He is buried at St Michael’s of Coventry with his second wife, Elizabeth under the name of James Sturdy. A DNA match from descendant of James and Ann Mawdesley match to two distant half cousins from the James Sturdy lineage. This revelation was quite shocking for both family lines!

  • Hope Heller

    My great grandfather passed away in 1910 in Fayette County, WVa. His name Joseph F Comer. His headstone reads Joseph F. Comer, May 28 1877, Feb 19 1910. He married Margaret “Maggie” L. Pettry in 1897. The marriage certificate names his mother as Lucinda. The only Lucinda I can find is married to Levi Comer. They had a son, David M Comer, born on May 28, 1877. The 1880 census list David M Comer as 3 yrs. old son of Lucinda and Levi Comer. I can not find any other records for this son David M. Comer. I have been unable to locate a birth certificate for Joseph. I had read a story at one time that Levi and Lucinda Comer had suffered a tragic accident. Their home had burned down in the mid 1870’s and they had lost several children. I can not find this story in my files, so am wondering if I had dreamed it. But if the story is true, then it could be possible that David had been born at an earlier date and perished in the fire, then the distraught parents had registered the deceased sons name as been born on that said date that Joseph was born and forgot to register the death of David. Or renamed the new son after his deceased brother and he changed his name.

  • Jan Roy

    I suspect my ggm changed her maiden name, but after marriage (huh…why?). Her marriage certificate gives her last name as French, also the death certificate of her first child. But every other of the ten childrens’ death certificates say Dickson (or Dixon) as their mother’s maiden name. But the first name didn’t change, and the parents were married for 45 years, so it’s not as if there was a second marriage and a different mother. And the census data lists the children in the same family. I’ve hit a brick wall with her. One person suggested she may have been a foster child at one point, and had taken their name while living with them. I’ve looked for her both as French and Dickson (and Dixon) and don’t find her anywhere. Aargh! This is a frustrating one for me since I’m stuck so early on this tree branch!

  • Andrea Llewellyn

    My grandfather came to england sometime in the late 1880s or early 1900s from Russia. He was called Andre Toni, but strongly suspect that he fled Russia as he was Jewish, hence the name change. I have tried for over 40 years to find out anything about him other than his war record, and that was not much. I hired a genealogist, who also came up with almost nothing.
    Can you advise me where to go from here please?

  • Rachelle Tilsley

    I’ve had a brick wall for the past 12 years or so to do with a James McCabe whose wife was my 3-gr grandmother, Elizabeth Helps. But recently I came across a last Will and Testament on Ancestry which says “I James Cape otherwise known as James McCabe…” This will be tremendously helpful because up until now there are no records of James McCabe except on the birth Certs of her first two children who kept his name, and in a few obituaries. And because we can’t find their marriage certificate, we are not sure of her maiden name. Her marriage certificate to my 3-gt grandfather simply says she was a widower named Elizabeth McCabe. We have much oral history about her, including in obituaries but much of that info has not panned out.

    The problem I’m now having is deciphering the Will. I’ve gotten pretty good at reading handwriting and even guessing the era based on the style, but this one has defeated me. I can only read about every 3rd word and that hasn’t told me anything so far.

    The other thing that has me worried about the accuracy of my research is that all the subsequent children born to my 3-gt grandfather were baptised on the same day, but it appears that a few were born before the marriage of the parents. Now this, despite him being well known as a very pious man, which is confirmed in letters he wrote to his children, is an alarm bell that the birth Certs might be incorrect.
    Anyway, checking for a Will might be an idea for researchers who hit a brick wall.

  • F

    I am convince that my last name was changed. From what some of my elders they say it was either Repeto or Repetto. Changed to Respeto. Any help of advice would be appreciated.

    Thank you

    • LisaL

      It’s certainly possible! Sometimes the name spelling changes over time and we really don’t know the reason. Confirming an individual’s details such as birth dates, marriage dates and another facts placed alongside the various name spellings can help confirm it. Depending on the time period, it likely did not have a formal name change record.

  • Pamela

    I have done 2 DNA test for 2 different sites. Not one match has the same last name. I have no clue. My father didn’t look like the rest of his family. He was very dark, had black hair and blue eyes. The blue eyes were the only Irish part of him. Both tests show I have Spanish and Native American traits; not much but it shows on both. There are lots of surnames that show up that I have never heard. He was not close to his family. They didn’t talk to him. This makes it very difficult. I have no idea where to start.

  • Shelly

    My Great Grandfather seemed to have changed his last name. It’s so complicated, I can’t even begin to put it into words. Basically, he seemed to have been born with one surname, and it appears his father and mom didn’t marry. I have records that she did marry another man, whom listed my G.G on the 1800 Fed. Census with his last name, but at some point my GG appears to have switched back to his original surname. The 1800 Fed Census is the last known record I can find with his step-father’s last name as his own. After that, no records at all, not even on his step father’s later Fed Census records. His baptismal record also shows his father’s last name. It’s a crazy mess, although fun and challenging, attempting to sort this all out.

  • Katherine Metcalf Davis

    My GGM went by no less than 5 Surnames! I have her marriage certificate to my GGF which lists her parents as Charles Conklin and Jennie Carl. Now comes the fun part…she married to my GGF and became Verity. Her first born child was listed with her maiden name of Conklin. Her 2nd child was listed with her name as Ward. She appears to have used both. I have been told that her mother died when she was very young and she went to live with the Ward family. It appears she married at the age of 15, though I have many conflicting records of this. She and my GGF divorced after almost 30 years. She was very lonely and subsequently married a man named Blydenburgh (surname #4). He had given her name as Mary Marsden (5#). I have a history of the “Verity’s of Long Island” which states that her name was Marsden. I have never found any record of this, so I am assuming that it is incorrect. I sent a request for her death record to New York state, though I was sent the record for my GGF instead of hers. I would have to send a request for every surname in order to find out what name she actually died under. She is actually buried with my GGF and is listed as Mary E Verity. I think this search may be never ending! Any ideas?

    • LisaL

      Oh, yikes! That might be the most surnames for one person I’ve seen yet. You’ve done a fantastic job of researching her. I’m not sure what your next step should be yet. While I’m pondering her, hopefully, other readers will chime in.

  • Jeannette

    I have searching this mysterious great grandfather of mine…for a while and before he arrived in the United States is a huge mystery! I have tried many different things and I has to be a similar issue of this nature name change of where he was born for sure he listed something different on each and every one of the census document, from what I have gotten from the previous report that my research person had done. And when they suddenly had a medical emergency and unable to continue I have continued. And I have had several other break thoughs in other areas of the family, unfortunately my father paternal grandfather no one clue has given me enough to break down the walls yet, I will continue with the advice above to see if it works?

  • Elizabeth

    My grandmother was unwed when she learned she was pregnant. To avoid a scandal she moved from northern MN to the Twin Cities. She changed her last name, and created a fictitious husband in the process. The year after my father was born, she is listed in the St. Paul city directory as a widow. She is also listed in her hometown city directory that same year under her new name, and showing her as a widow. After a couple of years she returned to the Twin Cities where she met the man who I knew as Grandpa. He passed away in the mid-1970s. In 1980 she married again. They were married 20 years before he passed away.

    I had searched for my biological grandfather for 26 years using the information my grandmother had provided over the years. I kept running into brick walls at every turn. I finally decided to do DNA testing to see if I could find some biological relatives. That worked and the outcome just floored me. The kicker here? It turns out that my grandmother’s last husband was my father’s biological father!

    No one in my family knew he was our biological grandfather until 2022 … 20 years after my grandmother passed away. Now that was one well-kept secret!

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