What to do when your ancestor changed their names?
Do you ever feel like your ancestor suddenly appeared on Earth from another planet? Or perhaps they disappeared without a trace? While it's possible your ancestor went into a form of witness protection program, they likely changed their names.
Why Did Our Ancestors Change Their Names?
When I was younger, I didn't like the name Devon. It was forever mispronounced and always associated with males. My middle name Noel wasn't better. Texas slurred the two Christmas syllables together to form the word Nol.
I wanted to change my name many times, but I like how Devon Noel Lee sounds, so I'm keeping it.
However, our ancestors changed their names for their own reasons:
They didn't like their name.
They had the same name as many others in the same town.
They discovered they weren't the children of who they thought they were.
They wanted to simplify their name when they immigrated.
To avoid discrimination. Many Germans in America changed their surnames during WWI and WWI to avoid anti-German sentiments.
They were using a nom dit name that was used to tell different families with the same surname apart.
They needed to hide from the law, ex-wives, or adversaries when going into exile or seeking asylum.
In the US today, changing your name involves a lot of paperwork and fees. By contrast, individuals living in eras before formalized identification and record-keeping could find changing their names as easy as changing their shirts.
This leaves many genealogy researchers to pull their hair out and curse those name-changing relatives.
What, if anything, can we do?
Search For Records That Document An Ancestor Who Changed Their Name
While you might not find the document that definitively identifies a name change, sometimes you must put on your detective hat. Here are a few steps to work through a name change case.
Review Oral History - Lisa Lisson wrote about a disappearing ancestor where oral history helped her figure out the name changes of William Haley. A simple sentence like "We're somehow related to the Tribble family" can be an excellent clue.
Review Previously Obtained Records - Review all records you have for an ancestor. Perhaps you have marriage and death records following a name change. Perhaps you have birth and census records of your ancestor in the home of their parents. Look for clues in names, places, and dates.
Analyze the Names of Family Members - When you're researching name changes, you HAVE to know the extended family. Perhaps you'll find a possible 'stranger' in the homes of children, siblings, and cousins, who are actually the relative you seek. Perhaps you'll find naming patterns between the known relative and a potential person of interest.
Get to Know the Neighbors - Pay attention to the neighbors for your ancestor. Research the neighbors of the ancestors. Does a 'new' neighbor have the same characteristics as your 'missing' ancestor? Did a group of neighbors migrate and a person matching your ancestor's description (but not their name) travel with them?
Study Surname Usage Patterns - Particularly with adoptees and folks who use nom dit names, study the surname usage patterns.
My distant relative Michael Bowers/Kirchner grew up thinking his surname was Bowers. He married with this last name and had children with this last name. Suddenly, he stopped using the Bower surname and began using Kirchner when he learned his surname at birth was Kirchner, not Bowers. I had to search for both surnames to follow his paper trail.
Search each combination of a nom dit. Suppose your ancestor's surname appears as Deguire dit Desrosiers. Search for surnames Deguire, Desrosiers, Deguire dit Desrosiers, and Deguire Desrosiers
Develop a Theory - As you dig deep into descendancy research and search the neighbors, you may have a theory. Write out that theory and then test it out. Do the "Same Name Rule Out" theory, but instead of using the same names, research the potential relative match to eliminate individuals with that name that can not be the same and your name-changing kin.
Research Records - Look at the records listed below and additional records to find evidence for your theory.
Test with DNA - Depending upon how far back the name-changer appears on your family tree, you can compare your DNA matches to determine if they relate to a relative with a different surname. You won't necessarily be able to use Ancestry ThruLines or MyHeritage Theory of Family Relativity to resolve the issue. You could test out different names to see what happens, but you'll likely want to use Chromosomes Browsers, What Are The Odds, and other tools to find the answer.
Andy shared how DNA and genealogy records helped him identify his name-changing ancestor's history in this webinar DNA 40 Year Mystery.
Search For Records That Document An Ancestor Who Changed Their Name
Be advised that this genealogy research process can be VERY painstakingly slow. But, in many cases, it's possible to solve. I've identified several situations where names have been changed with resolution.
Pension Records - When a veteran, or widow, wanted to obtain a pension file, they had to prove their identity and enlistment. In many pension files, the index card will have an "Also Known As" name recorded. In other cases, the names are included in the packet.
Passport Applications - I've indexed Passport Applications for FamilySearch. Many of these documents record the various names an individual uses. These records regularly document immigrants who simplified their names when they moved to the US.
Naturalization Records - While searching unsuccessfully for the Naturalization records for my German Immigrant Ancestors with the last name Geiszler, Hoppe, and Mack, I paid attention to the records I browsed. Many of these records identified the name of an individual seeking citizenship previously used and the new name they used in the US.
Newspaper Records - Newspapers might make it challenging to determine name changes. Still, obituaries, police reports, court cases, and even lifestyle features may record the 'previously known as' names of your ancestors and the new names they used. Don't forget to explore ethnic newspapers for the original versions of your ancestors' names.
Court Records - Whether your ancestor conducted land transactions under different names or became involved in criminal cases. Courthouse records may help you uncover a name change.
County Histories - Think of some county histories as brag books or the "Who's Who of _____ County." Many biographies in these county histories have recorded "Also Known As" names for our relatives.
Did you notice that this list doesn't include researching Ellis Island records for name changes? A genealogy myth that must die suggests that workers on Ellis Island changed your ancestor's name. Numerous articles and videos have dispelled the reason for the myth, but it persists.
Do research Ellis Islands for your immigrant ancestors, but don't use these as a strategy for finding your name-changing ancestors.
↪️ A name-changing ancestor is definitely a brick wall.
Grab your copy of this FREE Guide for additional resources that might help you track the change of identity for your ancestor.
More Genealogy Research Tips
Explore these tips for more advanced genealogy research techniques