Formerly Known As…? How to Find Your Ancestors’ Name Changes

Family History
6 March 2023
by Kaitlin Vaughan

Ancestors name changes can throw wrenches in what may otherwise be a simple lineage to trace and document, especially when it comes to immigrant ancestors.

One of the most pervasive genealogical urban myths is that surnames were changed by immigration officials upon entry at Ellis Island and other large ports, but in fact, surnames were often altered by the immigrants themselves, frequently during the naturalization process.

United States citizenship applicants commonly adopted more anglicized surnames in order to better assimilate and prevent discrimination. Some new immigrants changed their surnames to better suit businesses they started in the new country, or to a name that more closely aligned with the population of their new neighborhoods.

Many European immigrants simply chose to shorten their surnames. In the example below, Carl, or Keril, abbreviated Leskawich to Lesk. One can presume his motivations were ease in pronunciation, and having a less identifiably Polish name, thus less apt to prejudice. Ancestry® contains hundreds of thousands of original naturalizations and other immigration filings that have the potential to contain myriad information to help you locate your immigrant ancestor’s chosen American identity.

Naturalization of Carl Lesk
Naturalization of Carl Lesk, formerly known as Keril Leskawich, from Ancestry

Name Changes Beyond Immigration

Marriage licenses, especially when it comes to discovering surname changes for women, and legal filings are other record sets in which one can find documented name changes. Ancestry holds over 1,500 unique collections of land, probate, and financial documents that frequently mandate the listing of the record subject’s alias(es).

In the absence of records, it is useful to remember that name changes often contain a likeness to the individual’s original surname. Ancestry has an option to search for both given and surnames that “sound like,” are “similar” & utilize “soundex” to locate names that are phonetically similar, similar in spelling, and/or meaning. An ancestor’s new name can often be relatively easily located by utilizing these expanded search techniques in conjunction with other temporal, geographical, and biographical cues.

For instance, one can infer that a Walter Wasilewski born in April of 1918 in Lincoln, Nebraska with parents Jan and Marianna is likely the same man as Walter Walsh born in 1918 in Lancaster County, Nebraska with parents John and Marion.

Unfortunately, name changes aren’t always documented in the subject’s official records, nor do they always follow phonetic patterns. One can sometimes discover an ancestor’s name change in the vital records of their close relatives. You might find success checking the name of the informant on the subject’s parents’ death certificates, and /or the witnesses on their siblings’ marriage records. When vital records fail, newspaper searches can elicit important leads. Often we can learn of a name change in the obituaries of the name changer’s parents or siblings. Published legal notices may provide clues, an ‘aka’ in the announcement of a probate proceeding, or even a brief anecdote announcing the formalized name change itself. Take Charles Collar of Butte, Montana, who in 1938 changed his name to Charles Sakellaris. Without finding the satirical snippet below, it may have taken even a seasoned genealogist many hours to make the “mystifying” connection.

1938 Article in The Kilgore News Herald
1938 Article in The Kilgore News Herald, from™

Follow the Clues to Find Your Family

If you find yourself stumped tracing the trajectory of ancestors who likely changed their names, get creative. Broaden your inquiries using expanded search options on Ancestry, pursue legal record sets, and look to documents of immediate family members. Lastly, look at newspapers, they are treasure troves for biographical information, from articles to advertisements, you never know just what you may discover about your ancestor’s old and new identities. Happy searching!