Posted by Tana L. Pedersen on April 19, 2010 in Family Tree Maker

Peterson, Pettersen, or Pedersen? Different branches of my father’s family have chosen to spell our last name in a variety of ways. Over the years, the spelling of your surname or your ancestor’s surname may have changed too. Sometimes this happens when a family immigrates to a new country and changes their name so it’s easier to spell or pronounce. For others, names have been recorded phonetically—which can mean the name is spelled differently on every record. Regardless of the reason, you’ll want to search for (and make note of) your family members under all necessary variations.

Family Tree Maker lets you record surnames in a variety of ways. I haven’t decided if one way is better than another. For me the key is to be consistent.

My great-grandfather’s name was Michael John Reed, but he was known as MJ Reed in life and in records. I have recorded Michael John Reed, the name he was given at birth, as his preferred name (the name entered in the Name fact). I have also entered MJ Reed as an alternate name in the Also Known As fact. (To enter a name in the Also Known As fact, go to the Person tab for the individual. Right-click the Individual & Shared Facts workspace and choose “Add Fact.” Choose “Also Known As” from the list.)

But what do you do if someone in your family decides to change their own name? When my grandfather and his family emigrated from Denmark, they chose to go by Peterson. However, when my grandfather returned to Denmark years later, he discovered that his surname was originally spelled Pedersen. When he returned to America, he decided to switch his name to the “original.” To record this change in Family Tree Maker, I created a custom fact named “Name Change.” Then I entered the date and the reason why my grandfather started using a different surname. (For more on custom facts, check back in two weeks for my next blog posting.)

So how do you enter surname changes? Do you have multiple Name facts? Do you use the Also Known As fact? Please share the solutions that have worked for you.


  1. Sherry

    I have the same situation since my ancestors came from both Denmark and Norway, thus changing their original name from Gudmundsen to Goodmanson, then later to Goodman. The Danish side was Paulson, but pronounced Polson, also creating searching problems with the surname as well as those pesky first names… seems everyone was Nels Paulson 🙂

    So I have arbitrarily changed all the names to be the same so they would “link” when doing a kinship report.
    I like the name change fact addition though and will try to incorporate it in my data as I have several other stating that a person is single and never married, leaving no descendents.

  2. I use the AKA fact frequently. It seems that a large number of people in my file went by their middle names in life and on documents. For instance my grandmother’s name at birth was Clara Elizabeth but she used Lizzie throughout her life; it is even Lizzie on her tombstone.
    I like the “name change” custom fact and will keep it in mind for possible future use.

  3. dnilson

    I just use the alternate names option. My grandfather came to America as Johan Nilsson and he changed it to John Nilson. So I use Johan and the primary name and John as the alternate. Seems to find both in hints.

  4. Mary

    I use the AKA fact quite a lot as many of the women on my tree seemed to have swapped their first and middle names, especially at marriage.

    I also found it very useful to remind me of the several Scottish female ancestors who chose to use their maiden names, especially on censuses, not having adopted their husband’s surnames on marriage.

    I had a couple of step children problems. They had kept their father’s name for the first census after his death, but were using their stepfather’s surname by the next one. Just to add to the confusion, both used their father’s surname when they got married!

    Your “Name Change” fact idea will solve that little conundrum.

  5. Monika

    #2 – If your ancestry is European, then the reason why there was so much “swapping” of middle names and first names is as follows: In the Europe of the 18th century (and most likely before that–and in many instances still to this day) the first name given to a child was given in order to honor either an ancestor or a saint. For instance, it was not uncommon for EVERY boy in the family to have the same first name (JOHANN or, as in my family ANTON). So, here you were and the first name of your six boys was ANTON! The only way to tell them apart (or for them to know whom the mother was calling), was to give them a middle name which, in German, for instance, was referred to as “Rufname” (freely translated into English “The name by which you were called”). So, since they were called by their middle name from childhood on, it is easy to see why they found themselves dropping their first name and why their middle name very often became their predominant given name. There is an excellent article on the internet, referring to “German Naming Customs”. While this article refers to “Pennsylvania Germans”, I can reassure you that the Pennsylvanian Germans adopted that from the “old country”. This article can also help you as you trace your ancestors, since it assigns the order in which children were called (e.g, lst son after the father’s father, 2nd son after the mother’s father; first daughter after the mother’s mother, etc. etc.) The website is This may not have anythhing to do with family tree maker, but–since you brought up the “name swapping” I thought you might be interested to know.

  6. judy


    i know i am of subject here but as many of you won’t know this ancestry has allotted a new blog site to the UK users its been in operation now for about a month and was launched with out any advertisement from what i can see so hardly any one is commenting lets change that. is still the same company as so the things they decide to blog about will affect you too after all the world is a small place and many of you will have relies in England just as i have in the us and the records are held all in the same place accessible to as all which ever site we use.

  7. Rebekah Tomlinson Mendoza

    Naming conventions – what a great idea for an article/blog, etc. I’ve had to use the AKA fact as well as alternate. My husband’s family is from Mexico and the “latins” have several different customs about names (all his brothers and sisters have the same middle name – their mother’s maiden name). My family is Scottish/English/Welsh/French with entirely different customs. Many of my earlier ancesters all went by their middle names and you could make very good guesses about the birth order by who they were named for. Get cracking – let’s have that great article.

  8. Monika

    #7 –Don’t you just LOVE all these customs? I love to learn this sort of thing. Found your info very informative. My (now 95 year old) mother is French. She has seven given names, as do most members of her family! Don’t know what the background of that is, if somebody wants to explain that to me!

  9. Rebekah Tomlinson Mendoza

    #8 – Looks like has a mini-mandate to come up with that article, or maybe a whole book on naming customs and conventions. Way to go.

  10. Brenda McNabb-Stange

    I have a different but similar problem. Several of my ancestors have 2 last names. For example, many are “Desormier dit Cusson”. When I upgraded my Family Tree Maker, all of these were changed to the last name of “dit Cusson”. There are several other combinations of “dit” names in my tree as well. I don’t know what to do to straighten this out in the program, but it also adds to the difficulty of finding ancestors by both names.

  11. John Donaldson

    # 10 Brenda McNabb-Stange

    This can be easily fixed by a very old trick that works in all versions of FTM, the use of the non-breaking space.

    Using your numerical keyboard add your name as follows:


    Note that I have used to clearly show the Alt+0160 keyboard action. Don’t use the when you actually do it.

    Pressing the Alt key+0160 (sing the number keypad) will insert what seems to be a space but it is in fact an invisble non-breaking space which forces FTM to treat your surnmae the way you want it.

    It will look the same eg Desormier dit Cusson but in fact it will be one word.

    You can also do the same thing with slashes eg

    /Desormier dit Cusson/ which don’t show up in reports butI have always felt the Alt+0160 is more elegant

    John D

  12. Tana L. Pedersen

    Thanks for all the comments. It makes me feel better I’m not alone in trying to deal with these problems. It’s also fascinating to me that each culture and country seems to have their own version of the problem. Definitely something to do more research on.

  13. jan costic ihrig

    I have Family tree maker 2010. I use the AKA feature. However is it sensitive in its search to pick up a lead when you have relatives who have changed the first and last name COMPLETELY!!! Two of my relatives changed both their surnames and first names. Their new names aren’t even close to their given names.

  14. After looking for another of my husband’s
    relative I discovered that in the 1920 census
    the name was copied Noll which was really Nall.
    It was the census taker penmanship. I know this
    was his family, because all the children’s names were there. how can this be changed. It won’t
    add to our family tree because of thr spelling.

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