Aliases and Name Changes in Family History
Last names were originally used to help with lineage or differentiate people with the same given name. In the 19th century anyone could “Americanize” their name, spell it differently, or even adopt an alias without legal consequences. Aliases can also be used to distance oneself. One must be exceptionally careful accepting alternate names in genealogy research and use additional sources of information to corroborate each alias.
Family history research overwhelms many of us at the thought of a creating a pedigree chart. Then you add in the research and complexities of human behavior, lack of formal legal proceedings, and events... It can be paralyzing!
But it doesn't have to be.
Let’s look specifically at name changes. You’re researching an ancestor when “POOF!” they disappear from the records. You have hit the proverbial brick wall in genealogy.
Here are some suggestions for you to try:
Consider spelling changes.
Enumerators sometimes wrote out names phonetically, especially if the names sounded foreign. Spelling differences can cause a lot of confusion over whether or not this is the same person you are researching. The best thing you can do, aside from finding a direct source for a name change, is to find evidence that disproves the tie to your ancestor.
You may even find two people with the same name but different children, spouses, and ultimately different lives, or it could be the same person with a blended family or new family. My point is that you gather a lot of other sources on them over periods of time and sometimes for various people before knowing which are legitimate for the person you are researching.
Triangulate is a fancy word that originated from navigation. Using multiple points on a map, one could measure depth of field or distance and navigate to (or avoid) certain places.
In research, it means using multiple data sources to figure out the answer to a question. You can use multiple U.S. Federal Censuses to determine if the family mentioned in each census is the same family by looking at names, ages, and other clues.
Your depth of knowledge for that family builds as you gather more accurate records beyond the standard birth, marriage, and death records. Naming differences can through you off, but if you have multiple records then you are more likely to be correct.
Immigration records may hold clues.
Second, if you have an ancestor who immigrated to the USA, Federal law allows aliens applying for naturalization to request a free name change upon the grant of citizenship. Given the sentiment towards immigrants in the 1800s, it was very common for immigrants to change their name or whole families to change their name. Sometimes it was due to a stigma they experienced professionally or socially and at other times they just wanted to leave behind their past lives.
If your ancestor was naturalized after 1906, then you might find the name change on their naturalization papers housed at the National Archives. “The law before 1906 extended U.S. citizenship to the wife and minor children of a naturalized immigrant through derivation. Unfortunately, the law did not require the wife or children to be named in the record.(1)
Most of these records are not digitized and still on microfilm at the National Archives. You can sometimes find the records that people are uploading to subscription sites and those may be accessible only to subscribers.
Names can change simply by using an alias.
Lastly, most states allow you to change your name simply through usage and little formality. Often they would require the person to publish the name change in the newspaper a minimum number of times… but not always.
I have personal experience with this in my family tree. I have an 2x great-grandfather who chose to discard his father’s name. He took the name of the family who raised him.
Updated on November 20, 2017; originally posted August 8, 2017.
(1) Researching Individuals; U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services; 8 Aug 2017; https://www.uscis.gov/history-and-genealogy/research/individuals/researching-individuals#nationality1