Winning the Name-Change Game
By Staff Writer 17 March 2010

There are a so many reasons why an ancestor might have changed his or her name. Names were changed due to marriage or because another family member went by the same name. Names were sometimes Americanized – so an immigrant would fit better into the American culture. Language barriers and poor penmanship left some names permanently altered. And there were stealth reasons for changing a name, too, like hiding from a past (criminal or otherwise), a ditched spouse, or a debt. And sometimes names were changed simply because a person didn’t like something about the one he or she had been given.

Regardless of the reason, it can be tough to follow a changed name, whether you’re looking into the future of that relative or his or her past. The following search ideas, however, may help you win at the name-change game.

Use a wildcard. If the changed name is just a few letters off from the original name, try a wildcard search where asterisks replace some of the letters. For example, if the surname was Berlengauem, B*rl*g*m* would produce it, Burlingame, and other variants. Experiment with the asterisk placement to see what kind of results you get.

Search for relatives. Family often remained together or nearby, even when names changed. Following siblings, children, and parents through census records and noting people in the neighborhood who match the name-changer’s description could show you he or she was living right next door.

Search by criteria. Forego names and search using birthplace, age, gender, occupation and other details to find people who match the ancestor you’re seeking. Pay special attention to the names in your search results. Do any of them seem to reflect your family?

Look for Americanized versions. Often these were similar to the original surname, for example, the German surname Oachs became Oaks, or was literal translations like Black for the German surname Schwartz.

Lengthen and shorten names. And remember that more than one ancestor may have changed a surname. Weisenberger may have become Weisenberg then Weisen and finally Wise.

Follow an address in a city directory . Names may have changed even when the residence stayed the same.

Visit property-related records. A person who assumed a new name may have continued using a birth name or listed both the birth name and the new name on legal documents. Wills that mention the person may also hint at the name change.

Read the newspaper. In criminal matters, published police blotters often listed both the birth name and any aliases.

Review immigration records and passports. Both passport applications and naturalization papers may include documents or notations that indicate a name change.

Follow mystery family. See a woman you’re not familiar with on a passenger list traveling with your family members and listing the same destination? Maybe you’ve found a relative’s future wife or a widowed sister who remarries and changes her name after landing in America.

Try maiden names. Surname changes sometimes reflect family history. Try searching for the person using his or her mother’s maiden name or grandmother’s maiden name.

Listen for stories. You may find a clue in old family tales about the name a person adopted or the name a person was originally bestowed.

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