Genealogy Challenge: Your Ancestor’s Name Change

Introduction: In this article, Mary Harrell-Sesniak gives tips for a challenging genealogy problem: researching an ancestor’s name change. Mary is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background.

Did your ancestor petition the court to change a name – and was the reason disclosed? Many people go to court and change their names, but reasons vary greatly. How can you find out more about your ancestor’s name change?

Some people change their name because of adoption or a change in marital status – and others due to different motivations – including personal preference, an unwanted association, or for legal reasons.

Illustration: artist’s rendering of proposed U.S. Courthouse in Tallahassee, Florida, 1899
Illustration: artist’s rendering of proposed U.S. Courthouse in Tallahassee, Florida, 1899. Credit: Florida Memory Project.

Whatever the reason, a name change generally resulted in corresponding newspaper notices. Often it was dictated by law that a name change had to be published in the local press, to make an effort to inform the public and interested parties. By searching old newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, you might discover the story behind your ancestor’s name change.

My Family

In my family there are several instances of legal name changes, so even if you don’t think it happened in yours, it’s a genealogical occurrence that is commonly overlooked.

For instance: a name change in my grandchildren’s ancestry has to do with a parent who died. The mother remarried and so the family took on the step-father’s surname which is used to this day.

Another example, which I have written about before, happened to my great grandfather, nee Edgar Hanks, who was indentured by the George Thomas and Mary (Robertson) Evans family of Indianapolis after they lost a child.

He had used the Evans name since the age of four, so it appeared to everyone that he was a natural born child as they loved him dearly and raised him as their own. He was officially adopted by the mother who raised him until she became a widow. He then legally became Edgar Hanks Evans in his 40s to protect the inheritance. Note: his story is interesting, as his birth mother had turned him over to a children’s home after becoming impoverished. She kept in touch with his adoptive family and later in life he was able to meet his half siblings.

Another reason which occurred in my husband’s family was because certain family members wished to make the surname easier to spell. By dropping the zcz in Szczesniak, it was hoped that the world would no longer twist and turn it into unfathomable variations. Sesniak was the result, although to this day, we are still confronted with odd typos.

Here are some historical examples of name changes for readers to think about.

George Keiser Needed Work

Because of American antipathy toward Germany in 1917 during WWI, George Keiser of San Diego wanted to change his name because he didn’t wish to be associated with the German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II. He chose a more generic surname (Lee) so that he could gain employment.

An article about name changes, San Diego Union newspaper article 4 August 1917
San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 4 August 1917, page 5

E. J. Richards Wanted to Reinstate His Birth Name

Alternatively, E. J. Richards wished to “transmit to his children their ancestral name” of de Turbeville years after his father Samuel chose to drop a portion of the de Turbeville surname.

His notice contains a treasure trove of genealogical evidence. In this 1875 petition, which I will leave for you to read, we learn not only about where he was born, but much about close family members, including a sister’s married surname.

An article about name changes, Napa County Weekly Reporter newspaper article 10 March 1877
Napa County Weekly Reporter (Napa, California), 10 March 1877, page 2

Alma Pool’s Name Was Changed by Adoption

If you’re wondering about a family adoption, it’s possible a newspaper recorded it. We can imagine that Alma Pool, a minor, was adopted by Stephen Kissinger after she either lost one or more of her parents, or they were no longer able to care for her. In this case, look for an orphan court record.

An article about name changes, Tampa Tribune newspaper article 24 June 1920
Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Florida), 24 June 1920, page 5

Bessie Campbell Restored Her Maiden Name of Bessie Mansell

In the same Tampa Tribune article above, another decree mentioned a petition filed but not yet granted. Bessie Campbell wished to have her maiden name Bessie Mansell restored, implying a termination of a marriage either through death or divorce.

Lelah Edgerton’s and Marcy Pendleton’s Reasons Not Divulged

Although divorce or death is implied when a married woman requests a name change, never assume a reason as it is possible a newspaper kept it brief for privacy reasons, or perhaps there were other reasons. In all cases, court records would hopefully reveal more information.

An article about name changes, Indianapolis Journal newspaper article 13 May 1903
Indianapolis Journal (Indianapolis, Indiana), 13 May 1903, page 11

This name change notice is one of the earliest I found (from 1874). Notice the reference to order of publication.

An article about name changes, Daily National Republican newspaper article 31 March 1874
Daily National Republican (Washington, D.C.), 31 March 1874, page 8

Karl Emil Marklund’s Reason Was Not Disclosed

Some name changes only appeared in the newspaper as a brief notice without much detail. For example, Karl Emil Marklund’s request was granted by decree – but that’s all the newspaper notice announced. In a case like this, you’ll have to turn to existent court records to learn more.

An article about name changes, Rockford Republic newspaper article 14 April 1910
Rockford Republic (Rockford, Illinois), 14 April 1910, page 2


As you hopefully realize, newspaper notices, such as these from GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, are the starting point to proving family histories – whether you are looking for the reason of a known name change, or wondering if the reason you’re at a dead end is that a name change occurred in your family!

Please let me know in the comments below if you found a family name change in the papers, and if the reason was disclosed.

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