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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!]
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 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!
Other posts of interest!
- Use ArchiveGrid To Find Old Documents & Family Records
- How to Make Genealogy Sense of Census Records – 1850-1940
- How To Perform Your Genealogy Searches More Successfully