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?

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 one’s name 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.

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!

Do you suspect your ancestor changed their name? It's possible! Explore genealogy tips and strategies to trace that ancestor. #genealogy #ancestors #familyhistory
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3 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.

(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 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 this research, 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.  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.

Do you suspect your ancestor changed their name? It's possible! Explore genealogy tips and strategies to trace that ancestor. #genealogy #ancestors #familyhistory
Anita Carr Talbott

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”).

Do you suspect your ancestor changed their name? It's possible! Explore genealogy tips and strategies to trace that ancestor. #genealogy #familyhistory #ancestors
William Haley Family

2.Take a Close Look at Traditional Genealogy Records.

Seek out all sources of genealogy information. Do not skip any steps here. 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.  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.

Do you suspect your ancestor changed their name? It's possible! Explore genealogy tips and strategies to trace that ancestor. #ancestors #genealogy #familyhistory
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.

Do you suspect your ancestor changed their name? It's possible! Explore genealogy tips and strategies to trace that ancestor. #genealogy #ancestors
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.

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.

Do you suspect your ancestor changed their name? It's possible! Explore genealogy tips and strategies to trace that ancestor. #genealogy #ancestors

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, but I was on the way.


Do you suspect your ancestor changed their name? It's possible! Explore genealogy tips and strategies to trace that ancestor. #ancestors #genealogy

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!]

Do you suspect your ancestor changed their name? It's possible! Explore genealogy tips and strategies to trace that ancestor.

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.

Do you suspect your ancestor changed their name? It's possible! Explore genealogy tips and strategies to trace that ancestor.
William and Clara (Holt) Haley

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]*

What name changes have you found among your ancestors?


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      • 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.

    • 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.

  • 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*

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