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 last name to start anew. This can explain why you can’t find records of your ancestors but with this information, you can learn more about your genealogy by understanding your last name origin.

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.

33 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.

    1. Contact the California State Archives, their email link is on their webpage. They have a book and also some WPA transcribed records.
      Names changes were handled by the State Legislature prior to the establishment of Superior Courts in California. You could also try searching the California Digital Newspaper Collection because the process required publication or you can contact me. Good luck, Junel Davidsen, Certified Genealogist

  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.


    1. How would we verify a name change when someone entered the army? We have the original surname and the new name, but not the record to verify associated records.

      1. Laura,

        Great question you asked here! If you know where (we’re talking city/county/state) they changed their name when in the military, I would check with that locality’s courthouse–assuming they went through the process legally. That courthouse would be able to help you track the records changing the surname from A to B. Happy hunting!

  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.


  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!

  12. I have been working on my family genealogy for the last four years. This has been very soothing and addicting! Only one problem; I have hit a block on my fathers side. I was told that my great grand father changed his last name (which would have been my father last name, which would be my ancestors. I have been told (what we believe it originally was) the original last name. unfortunately no one knows or has the spelling, and possibly the punctuation.
    Please help!!!! I am stumped, frustrated, and loosing hope. I have traced the other side all the way to the late 1600’s!!!

  13. Hi Mary –
    Do you know if he legally changed his name – or simply changed it on his own. If it was changed by the courts – you will want to check with the court in your state that has jurisdiction for name changes.

    What was the original name that you were told?
    I suggest that you Google it – to determine the correct spelling, punctuation.
    Then use that clue to to see if you can locate possible persons of that surname living in your area.

    Another standard approach you want to take is to check every possible record created by/about your great-grandfather. You will be looking for clues for his earlier, birth name. Since you mention ‘punctuation’ I assume that this name might come from a particular ethnic group. You should also check records, social clubs, newspapers associated with that group during the time period that he lived.

    What is the family tradition? That he changed the name because it was too difficult for American’s to spell and pronounce? What was the reason? Knowing that might give you other clues to look for.

    Please let us know what you find.


  14. My father was adopted (secretly.) Still to this day my grandmother denies he was adopted but other family members have. My father lost his license due to issues with the law and now needs his birth certificate to get a new license. Well his mother claims not to have a copy. He went to the court house and they do not have any record of him. So I did a little research with the small bit of info I had received from another family member who has since passed and found his birth name. His first and middle name were the same at birth but his last name was changed, but Im guessing not legally because they cant find a birth certificate for him… is there anything we can do to find more information?

  15. Dear Kristi – it is not uncommon for people to be unable to find their original birth certificate for various reasons. Most jurisdictions have procedures for registering a ‘delayed birth certificate’ or for creating new documentation. Check with your local town or county registrar to determine what the procedure is in your area.

    Usually this involves:
    – A statement from the local state/county/town clerk that there is no birth certificate on file
    – Then follow the steps to file a delayed registration of birth
    – Supplemental documentation is usually required:
    – Copy of the person appearing in the census – 1940, 1930 etc. See:

    – Certificate of baptism, statement from a church showing the person’s name and how long that person was listed on the records of the church
    – Notarized statements from friends, relatives – who have known the person – stating that they have known the person since (give date) along with his name any particulars about that person.

    Your local county court officials can tell you what is needed.

  16. My grandfather was illegitimate and refused to speak about his birth father. On the 1920 York county, Pennsylvania census there is a Charles H Ferree living in his grandmother’s home, which is my grandfather’s grandmother. My grandfather’s name was Charles H Knaper(his mother’s last name). How can I find out if these are the same people and if so a copy of his name change.

    1. Tina, this is an interesting case and it looks like you have a great lead on your Grandfather’s parentage. Here are a few tips for you. Until just recently it wasn’t always necessary to legally change your name, especially for a minor who did not have accounts under his previous name. Therefore, there may not be a legal paper trail or even an announcement in the newspaper. There are other ways to prove or disprove that this is the same person, however. Ideally you would be able to find a document that directly states the father’s name as given by his mother or by himself. Most valuable would be a birth certificate. In Pennsylvania, some counties were recording births this early and you will want to check with the county of his birth. Statewide birth registration was not required until 1906, with general compliance not occurring until 1915. Check with the state to see if he had a birth certificate. You will want to find other records that might contain this information such as a baptism, marriage license, social security number application, family bible entry, journal entry for his mother or family member, etc. If none of these records exist you will build a circumstantial case using the Genealogical Proof Standard. This would include tracking both Charles H Ferree and Charles H Knaper through the records to show that they must be (or cannot be) the same person. And searching for possible men of the appropriate age with the name “Ferree” that were in the mother’s known circles and so forth. Best of luck!

  17. Hi! The name of my grandfather, who everyone knew as George apparently had to get his name changed before he enlisted in the Navy during WWII. According to the story I was told, when he was born, his mother wrote Albert on his birth certificate, but then just started calling him George and the name stuck. 3 years after his birth, George was written on the census and not Albert. While I would be hesitant to believe the story, my family was Syrian, and because of this most legal records are all jumbled up anyway. Is there anyway that I can figure out if this story is true? And if so, where do I start.

  18. Kaci Jo – There is no one particular place that a family story like that would be recorded. You will want to continue to ask in the family – review family letters and examine the old family papers to see if anyone added a note about his name change.

    Take that same approach with all of the records that he created over his life time.
    There might be a notation about the name change in: his Naval papers; with an insurance policy or bank account. A note might have been made in the church register where they attended. Look at the back of old photographs – did anyone add a note there. You didn’t say if he was born here or overseas – but should look at his naturalization papers; original birth, marriage & death certificates; or papers related to his employment or involvement with a civic or fraternal association. Any one of these documents might have an added note that could give you more information on his ‘informal’ change of name. You’ve heard the story and so have others in your family. You will have to make a wide search to see if he or anyone in the family – or that he was in contact with – actually wrote down and documented that story. Please let us know what you find. Tom Kemp

  19. My grandfather changed his name to Zorn because his Russian/Polish name was too ethnic. It was in the early 1900’s in NewJersey. How can I find out the original name? He was born in Beltz, Russia, Came to the USA @ 1900.

  20. Patricia- I am not sure I can help with finding the original name, but I would recommend that you research the Beltz, Russia area for surnames. Knowing why he came to the United States will help you. If you know what religious affiliation he had will help you in your search as well. Then you can search church records and it may have his parents name. If he changed his name once he got to the United States you can search the courthouse records for name change. You will also want to search for his Naturalization records. I hope this gives you some idea for your search.

  21. Dr. James H. Campfield is my direct ancestor (on my Father’s side). He was born about 1836. I can track him from his death in 1883 in Ottawa, Ill. back to 1863 where he had an announcement for the opening of his medical practice in a Fall River, Mass. newspaper. In the announcement he stated the he had recently been in Jackson, Miss. after 2 1/2 years as a surgeon with the Army. He doesn’t state which Army it was, but according family legend it was with the South. I have hired a genealogist in the past who couldn’t find him before 1863 either, so my guess is that he changed his name at some point. Do you know if Massachusetts had anyone who would of recorded this in the early 1860s? Thank you for your time.

    1. Floyd- has a collection that may help you. This collection of court records originally published in 1893 contains changes of names approved by the courts of Massachusetts between 1780 and 1892. Containing nearly 40,000 records, each entry includes the original name and the new name. In addition, most entries contain information on family relatives and the person’s residence at the time of court action. For the researcher whose ancestor once lived in Massachusetts and possibly changed their name, this is a valuable database.

  22. Hi — trying to find a record of a name change in Pennsylvania that may have taken place between 1910 and 1914. I could not find a record of my grandfather having entered the US in 1907 and the first document with the “correct” surname appeared in 1914. It appears he entered under another name – I think I know the name but how would I check?

  23. Shelly- Obituaries sometimes give a hint to what the original name was by listing the names of the parents or siblings. Knowing the origin of the country may also give you a clue as to spelling changes. If you know the name of the ship that the person come on and the country that the ship departed from will help when searching passenger list. Passenger list can be listed in newspaper, but you can also check ports that they came thought as well.

  24. I’m wondering which civil court I would contact to find a name change that took place in the 1930s. The new name and his biological parents’ names are listed on his birth record, but I have no idea when the event took place. He is his birth name on the 1930 census, but there are several of his adopted names on the 1940 one, including three with about the right birth date. He was born in Manhattan and, I suspect, remained there all his life.

  25. Karyl- Newspapers can sometimes be of help in finding name changes . They would sometimes put in the newspaper a change in names for legal notifications. You can also try contacting‎ or and see if they can help you with name change information.

  26. I just recently found the document of my great-grandfather’s entry into the U.S. through Ellis Island in 1912. Unfortunately, I hit a brick wall with finding out what had happened to him afterward. The name is Jacow Gerasimenko. All I know is that he was planning to go to Pittsburgh, PA. Any thoughts on how I could trace a potential name change?

  27. Irina- As stated in this blog a name change may be put in the local newspapers or probate records. Start your search with your parents and where they lived and how they spelled their last name. Confirm with documents like marriage records, birth records and census records. Then find them with their parents (try the census). Again, confirm with documents like marriage records, birth records and census records. Once you find the location of your grand parents and where they where born this will help you get a good place to start. Check the court records, church records, marriage records in that location. Once you have information about your grandparents with the spelling on their records this will help you find your great-grandparents. Repeat the same steps with searching court records, church records and so forth.
    Once you confirm the spelling of the name this will help in locating other documents and help with searching newspaper articles for stories about them.

  28. My grandfather was born April 28, 1882 in Italy, and lived in Fiumedinisi (Messina) Sicily where my grandmother was born. I located my grnadmothers official birth records and her fathers official Italian name. When he immigrated to the US somehow his name changed, not sure if legally or just used a simpler spelling as needed.

    I see on marriage licenses of his sons a simpler first name (English version) and a similar last name from his given name. I have searched both versions and found nothing. Any suggestions?

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