From Adoption to the Witness Protection Program

Surnames are deliberately changed in the United States by usage and by law for a multitude of reasons. As far as genealogical and historical research goes, surnames also evolve and are mistaken for different names on an ongoing basis. Read the article on Surname Evolution and the blog about Surname Mistakes for clarification and examples. Changes require action on someone's part. Life changes top the list. Marriage yields the most changes, generally the wife changes her last name to that of her husband's. Birth yields the most names created, generally but not always, legitimate children are given their father's surname at birth. Then there are personal choice changes. Change can be from something undesirable or to something more desirable, i.e. getting rid of an old name or problems that came with it, Capulet and Montague or choosing a name with great connotations, distinction or style.


Life Changes

  • Marriage
  • Divorce
  • Death and Inheritance
  • Adoption
  • Minor Child Name Change

Changes From a Specific Surname

These changes occur when a person is trying to get away from a specific surname or the connotations related to that name.
  • Dislike sound, ethnicity, writing or spelling
  • Starting over, feuds, passing, aliases
  • Duplicity or confusion
  • Notoriety, mockery, predjudice, negative connotations
  • Witness protection program


Changes To a Specific Surname

These changes occur when there is a longing to change names but not a horrid name to leave:

  • Personal choice
  • Advancement
  • Ease
  • Economic choice; Screen Actors Guild, psuedonyms or noms de plumes
  • Religious
  • Differentiation


Surnames change most frequently from marriage, adoption and divorce. Women change their names upon marriage and remarriage all the time, to their husband's name, to a shared or unshared hyphenate, to a meld or completely made up different surname. Sometimes the husband changes his name from something common or undistinquished, Smith, Jones, Anderson, Williams or Johnson. I know a man who went from Taylor to Breitenstein. As a Taylor, he was one of many, many, men with that name, as a Breitenstein, his wife's surname, he was nearly unique. In another case a man with the surname Zelenak changed his name to Coogle. He may have been unique as Zelenak but he probably had to spell it all the time, was at the end of any group and in the back of the room, but his wife's name Coogle was shorter, earlier in the alphabet and perhaps easier to spell.

  • husband's surname
  • wife's surname
  • unshared hyphenated surname
  • shared hypenated surname
  • melded name parts from each surname
  • completely different name from both surnames
  • same sex couples changing one or more names in a civil union



Divorce can also yield name changes. Women especially those without children, may be anxious to move on and move away from that married surname and its memories. Sometimes it is part of the divorce decree that the surname will be given up. Women may feel the need to keep their married surname so they have the same last name as their children. Or they may have become used to that new surname, in some cases they may have had their married surname longer than their maiden name. Or they may like the position that surname reflects or they may just like the way it sounds or looks with their first and middle names. Sometimes the length of the marriage is significant, those who invested twenty or thirty years in a married surname and have professional and personal contacts with that name, may be reluctant to change whereas a shorter marriage, less than five years, may not have the significance or longevity in that name. Those who went the route of hyphenation, often drop the added surname. I have not met anyone or known anyone who divorced from a melded name or a completely made up surname, so I don't know how that plays out. I imagine animosity plays a role in the future surname options.



There are times when an inheritance is dependent on the survival of the family surname. A distant nephew, niece or cousin needs to change his or her surname to that of the testator in order to inherit property. In the same way a family surname's survival may depend on a husband changing his surname to that of his wife so the children of the marriage will carry the surname and be eligible to inherit the property. I have read books where this occurred and seen movies with this as a leitmotif, but I have not come across it in my genealogical or historical research. Adult adoptions also occur to stabalize inheritances with the or without the name change. Not all states allow or accept adult adoption.



Adoption from two unrelated parties generally means the child will take the married surname or the husband's surname or the custodial parent's surname. Adoption when when one party is the natural or biological parent goes differently. Sometimes the name change is to acknowledge the father's participation and place in the child's life. some times the union is a same sex union and the adoption is to give the non biological parent legal protection under the law. Many if not most adoptions are closed records so it is hard to say how these records will effect research.


Minor Child Name Changes

Name changes for minor children on the other hand are generally found in the recorder's office along with adult name changes. Checking the last 35 years in Hardin Co., Kentucky leaves a clear demarcation between adult and child name changes. There were 17 recorded name changes involving the Goodman surname, eight were adults including two woman who changed their names twice in the 35 years covered, while nine were children. While the reasons for each name change were not listed, hypotheses can be made the adults appeared to be women reclaiming their maiden names, while the children seemed to be having their names aligned with either their natural parents or stepparents.

  • Birth parent acknowledgement- the birth father acknowledges the child, and the surname changes from the mother's surname to the father's surname.
  • Birth parent revelation- the birth father learns of the child and the name changes to the father's surname.
  • Surname alignment - a stepfather attaches his name to the child without adopting the child or the birth mother changes the surnames of all her children to one surname.
  • Custodial parent ease - the birth mother leaves the named father, reverts to her maiden name and reattaches her name to the child at the same tiime.


Name changes FROM something awful to anything less pejorative.

Pure and utter dislike can motivate name changes, perhaps the sound, the look, the spelling, the ethnicity have always been an issue. Many German names with hard gutteral sounds had the sound, but not the meaning or the spelling of old Anglo Saxon swear words, Fuchs is one example, Shitz is another. I have a friend with the surname Damme in her background, two syllables. I think I would have changed it to Dammy or Dammie because the temptation to pronounce it in one syllable with a silent e at the end, is tremendous. The family didn't change, I can only imagine the jokes and pokes that one got.


David Carter Henritze moved from Tennesee to Kentucky and assumed the name Pat Kane in sometime in the 1870s or 1880s. He married and raised a son under that alias. Until the Pension Act of 1892, he kept up this dissembling. When he realized he was due pension money from the United States for his service to the Union during the Civil War, he had to own up to the name under which he served. In a fictional example, the television show, Alias Smith and Jones, revolved around Hannibal Heyes and Jedidiah Kid Curry and their exploits as Joshua Smith and Thaddeus Jones in the post railroad expansion West.



As America's mobile society flexed its collective muscle, starting over in a new place became easier. If  Ellie Mae Hatfield changed her name to Ellen Fieldstone to get away from feuding, what a relief it would have been for her. Feuds could involve family - nuclear and extended and neighbors, parents vs. child, siblings vs. siblings, cousins vs. cousins or neighbors vs. neighbors. A Capulet here, a Montague there, perhaps staying put is so stressful, any where else with any name would be easier.


If Ceaser McIntyre a former slave moved North and changed his name to Charles Montgomery in order to facilitate passing as white, who would have known?

Confusion and Duplicity

Duplicity or confusion can occur if an Einstein family chooses the first name Albert for one of their children. He could work under his middle name but perhaps the name Albert worked for him, then another surname perhaps Stein might come into play. If a family of seven or eight boys all married and had children, there could be a plethora of grandchildren named after the paternal grandfather, William Young Reynolds, William King Reynolds, William Fields Reynolds, William Smith Reynolds, etc. The name William has tons of nicknames, Will, Bill, Willie, Billie, or W. Y. It is not out of the realm of possibility that one of those William Reynolds might choose to invert his middle name and his surname just for differentiation or he may become known by his double first name, William Young much like Peggy Sue, until the name Reynolds is superfluous.

Perceptions or prejudice might be that having an Anglo-Saxon surname would not be a leg up in the rap world. see article  about naming patters on. pysch effect. find link.

Ethnic Prejudices

Surname changes were also made from a desire to have a less ethnic name for example German surnames during WWI and WWII, might have been anglicized, translated or moreover changed completely. The converse can also true, a name might be changed back to a more ethnic choice as a way of reclaiming that heritage. I know of a man who changed his surname to the family name of Buchanan in order to celebrate that one of his Scottish lines.


When the Monica Lewinsky debacle occurred there were certainly parents who wished they had not just named their daughters Monica, but those more likely affected were those young women in their early twenties named Monica who had to put up with horrid off-color jokes for months. If that first name wasn't embarrassing enough, how did those with the same surname handle it? Notoriety and confusion over names could be tough. Can you imagine the look on someone's face as that introduction took place. The surnames Hitler, Goering, Mussolini and bin Laden would all be categorized in the highly negative connotation section, where as a Brown family with a son Charles, called Charlie might just invite mockery. Some transgender name changes may be the first name only, others some change the entire name partially perhaps for notoriety.

Witness Protection Program

The witness security program run by U. S. Marshals of the Department of Justice, can remove a witness and his or her family from their home and relocate them in a completely different area of the country under an alias. This is often referred to as the Witness Protection Program. Sometimes if an entire family is moved, the members retain their given names and/or are given names that match their previous initials. While this may not be useful to finding those families today, it may make a big difference in tracking a family fifty years from now.


Name changes TO something more desirable from something else.

Personal Choice

There are people who want their names to be so distinctive or different that no other description can be made except personal choice. Michael Herbert Dengler has petitioned two different states to allow his name to be changed to 1069. North Dakota's discussion appears here.  I know a man who changed his surname to Waite, which had been his middle name Waite, in order to celebrate his connection to Governor Waite of Colorado.


Advancement paths come in many ways. the old chestnuts that hard work pays off and the harder you work the luckier you get are still true, but there is the idea that perception is a huge part of reality story also. If you wanted to get ahead in Democratic politics having the surname Kennedy probably would not hurt you. Why spend years learning to make great wine if you get the same effect by changing your name to Rothschild? If you want to be perceived as having old money Astor, Vanderbilt or Rockefeller might help as a surname.

Pseudonyms and Stage Names

Pseudonyms, noms de plumes, pen names, screen names are names used by authors and actors in order to work. Some evolve by usage into "real names" and some don't. Samuel Langhorne Clemens wrote under the name of Mark Twain and lived under the same Samuel Clemens, while Norma Jeane Mortenson/Baker became Marilyn Monroe on screen and in life. the Screen Actor's Guild require each name entered into the rolls to be unique so some names have been through some interesting changes.


Name changes for religious reasons are common among Islam or Muslim conversions. Two of the more famous being Cassius Clay a.k.a. Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. to Mohammad Ali and Lew Alcindor a.k.a. Ferdinand Lewis Alcinder Jr. to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It's curious both of these athletes were originally named for their fathers. Nuns and monks also change their names for religous reasons, but it seems as though they retain their original surnames.

Name changes are as personal as can be and made for a myriad of reasons, some of which can be imagined. Eugene Volokh whose hobby is collecting curious name changes discusses some of these reasons. Keep searching, while some of these changes are filed in the courthouse of the appropriate county in the state, some were changed by usage only.




Ida Sherwood Bettis is my paternal grand mother. Aunt Clara is my great aunt. I can remember every nooks and crany of that house and yard...

Eric Bettis Eric Bettis 25. July, 2017 |

I would be happy to forward your name, connection, and email if you wish.

Barbara K. Henritze Barbara K. Henritze 06. November, 2016 |

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