Hello My Name Is. . .
Changing one’s name happened fairly frequently in the past. There were any number of reasons why someone would do this. The number one reason why someone changed his/her name? Women who got married most often took their husband’s surname. Other ancestors might be non-English-speaking immigrants trying to fit into American culture. They might be trying to honor a step-parent. It was not uncommon for wealthy men with no sons to have a grandson change his surname, or for them to take in a local disadvantaged boy and provide him with a better quality of life in exchange for changing his name.
The law regarding changing one’s name is usually a combination of legislative and case law. The law varied from state to state, and it is important to understand the law of name changes in the time and place in which you are researching. In Massachusetts, for example, the state legislature was originally in charge of names changes. One petitioned the General Court for a change of name, which was either granted or denied. Records of these name changes are therefore found in legislative records. That process was eventually turned over to the courts, and is now handled in the probate court system. These records are found in the judicial records.
And in most instances, there was a very simple process until relatively recently. It was not necessary to file a petition to change one’s name.If one used a name for a period of time (usually a number of years), and they were not doing so with intent to commit fraud or other crime, the new name would become his or her legal name. These types of name changes left no trace in the records.
Getting past such a roadblock can be very tricky. One place to look for clues is in newspapers. The name change may have been done through petition, but it may have taken place in a place other than you think it did. As part of the petition process, the petitioner would usually have to place announcements in newspapers to give people the opportunity to bring to the court’s attention any potential illegal reasons why the petitioner might be trying to change his or her name.
Compiled family histories also may provide clues. Children taken in by other families may have left a family tradition of their original name. These traditions were sometimes recorded in the compiled genealogy.
Immigrants may have simply Anglicized their names through a variety of methods. Sometimes names were simply shortened (e.g., Moskevicz might become Moss). The name might have been morphed into an English-sounding version (e.g., Lajoie becomes Lashua). The name could also be translated directly from another language into English (e.g., Roy would become King). The immigrant may have also simply picked a new name out of thin air.
And remember that there is a difference between a change of name and a change of spelling. Standardized spelling of words, including names, is a modern phenomena. Prior to the early twentieth century, surnames could be spelled a number of different ways (e.g., Smith, Smithe, Smyth, Smythe, etc.). Any of them was an acceptable form of the name, and no process was required for spelling it in the different ways.