How to Find Ancestor’s Legal Name Change Records with Newspapers

Sometimes when researching your family history, it is difficult to find a relative—they just seem to have fallen off the face of the earth.

Did they go into the witness protection program?
Were they abducted by aliens?
Did they go on a cruise through the Bermuda Triangle?

Maybe they simply changed their name.
After all, many people did opt to change their identity to start anew.


Daily People. (New York, New York) 25 September 1901. page 1.

Russian immigrant Max Kaplansky decided he needed to legally change his name. He had become a naturalized citizen of the United States and a businessman, but found that his surname caused him “much annoyance in the society of Americans” and that he was “subjected to much ridicule.”
In 1901 he went to the New York Supreme Court to request that his name be changed to Max Kapell because “Kaplansky” had become an obstacle, costing him “many opportunities” both “in a business and social way.” Court Justice James Aloysius O’Gorman agreed with him and granted his petition to change his name.

Kaplansky’s experience was something many immigrants with foreign names went through as they tried to fit in to turn-of-the century America. If your ancestor arrived in America around this time, perhaps he legally changed his name for the same reasons Kaplansky did.

Sometimes entire families legally changed their names. In 1848, members of the Dore family petitioned the New Hampshire State Legislature to change their surname from Dore to Richmond. There were a number of other people in New Hampshire who wanted to change their names at this time, as shown in the following historical newspaper article.

This name change record was printed by the New Hampshire Patriot & State Gazette (Concord, New Hampshire), 6 July 1848, page 3.

I have even found name change records examples where a person applied to have only their middle name legally changed.

Take a look at this old name change record example. It was printed by the Salem Register (Salem, Massachusetts), 8 August 1870, page 3.

In 1870, Hannah A. Simonds, mother of Thomas Batchelder Simonds petitioned her local Probate Court to have her son’s name legally changed to Thomas Stanley Simonds. Interestingly the court required her to inform the public of this name change by “publish[ing] this decree once a week for three successive weeks in the newspaper called the Salem Register, printed in Salem…” and then report back to the court “under oath that such notice has been given.”
So our ancestors often did change their names and over the years they could apply to various courts or levels of government to request this change. In these three legal name change examples the petitioners applied to their State Supreme Court, a state legislature and to a local probate court.

The key for genealogists is that legal name changes have been routinely reported in the local newspaper and in the case of the Probate Court of Salem, Massachusetts in 1870 – it required that an announcement of the the identity change be published in the local newspaper.

It’s amazing the genealogical information you can discover in newspaper archives to help you find missing family members.

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Written by Thomas Jay Kemp

Thomas Jay Kemp

Thomas Jay Kemp is the Director of Genealogy Products at GenealogyBank. Tom Kemp is an internationally known librarian and archivist – he is the author of over 35 genealogy books and hundreds of articles about genealogy and family history.

He previously served as the Chair of the National Council of Library & Information Associations (Washington, DC) and as Library Director of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

An active genealogist, he has been working on his own family history for 47 years. With the rapidly growing online archives at GenealogyBank – it is a great day for genealogy!

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About Thomas Jay Kemp

Thomas Jay Kemp is the Director of Genealogy Products at GenealogyBank. Tom Kemp is an internationally known librarian and archivist – he is the author of over 35 genealogy books and hundreds of articles about genealogy and family history. He previously served as the Chair of the National Council of Library & Information Associations (Washington, DC) and as Library Director of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the New England Historic Genealogical Society. An active genealogist, he has been working on his own family history for 47 years. With the rapidly growing online archives at GenealogyBank – it is a great day for genealogy!

11 thoughts on “How to Find Ancestor’s Legal Name Change Records with Newspapers

  1. i would like to know if the state of california had a registry of name changes in the late 1860′s or shortly after. if so,i would like to contact someone in this field for genealogical purposes. thanks.

  2. Hello,

    I am looking for proof that my father had changed his name. My sister and I know what his birth name was but we do not know when or where he had changed it. We do know that he changed it before he went into the Army. He was born in 1906. My question to you is How am I able to find all this information out? We need this asap.
    Thank You,
    Mary DeAngelo

  3. Hi Mary – You have his birth name but believe that he changed his name when he entered the Army. Why do you believe that? Can your source tell you what his new name was? Did he change his first name – or his complete name? Given the time period when he would have joined/served in the military – 1920s 1930s – he could have simply adopted a new name as he entered the service and not formally/legally changed his name through a court action. Please send me more details and I can make more targeted suggestions for you.

    Tom

  4. how about name changes due to sex change yes this is a real question no joke i have an aunt who was an uncle and finding them genealogically has been a hurdle that is extremely difficult any help would be greatly appreciated as to i don’t judge or really care to get into it i just need records for my family tree thank you

  5. Hi Emily – genealogical research is focused on names – you will want to concentrate your search on the surname and the various first/middle/nick names a person used during their life. As you find clues like the legal notices of name changes you can adjust your search accordingly.

  6. my grandmother immigrated to the states from poland in the 30s. i have her polish passport name but the name on her marriage certificate is different. where do I look for a record of her name change?

  7. Hi Rubin – when was she naturalized? Do you have a copy of her naturalization papers? Individuals are given an option to change/adjust their name when they are naturalized. What was the name on the passport and on the marriage certificate? When was the passport issued? Tell me more about this.

  8. Hi…i am confused, i have an ancestor who stated his parents names on his marriage and death certificates in Australia….one emigrated from Ireland, the other the UK or Wales….how come i cannot find any reference to the parents or my ancestors being connected to the parents they stated on certificates. Could these 2 ancestors have changed their names for various reasons. Why in Australia can nothing be found out about them…only the marriage and death. Strange that both sides of my family i have ancestors like this. Thanking YOU

  9. We are looking for a name change for a Charles William Cheshire immigrated about 1912 from England changed name sometime to Charles William Thomas

  10. Hi April. Where in the United States did your ‘Charles William Thomas’ live? Changes of name are a legal/court action. Since he changed his name sometime between 1912 and the present – you’ll want to narrow down the date when that occurred so you can find the details of when and possibly when this happened.

    Once you have that approximate date you want to do a search in GenealogyBank to locate an article on the name change; contact the State Superior Court for where he lived to see what records they have of the name change and thirdly – if he changed his name on the day he was naturalized – then that information would be in his naturalization papers.

    Narrow down the date of the name change; consult the records I’ve listed and please let us know what you find.

    Tom

  11. Hi, I’m hoping you can give me some ideas as I’m sure there has been a name change on my husband’s side of the family, involving his great grandfather. This man appears on the census in 1880, as does his brother as William Spearing. He was born in 1861 (according to the death certificate) but does not show up on any census in 1870 as William Spearing with a brother Edward. Edward, born 1855, does not appear on a census until 1880 either. My father-in-law has done the DNA testing and the DNA does not match and is not close to any other Spearing tested (or like name). All this leads me to believe there has been a name change. But I’m not sure how I can figure it out, but it’s been driving me nuts for about 20 years now! Thanks for any help you can offer. All censuses after 1880 state they were born in PA. Thanks!

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