Why Did My Ancestor Change the Family Name?

Tracing Your Roots: Learn how to sleuth the mystery behind a suspected surname switch.

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Dear Professor Gates:

My last name is Stradwick. However, my late grandfather, Thomas Stradwick, said that was not our family’s original surname. He said his father, James, changed his last name to Stradwick, for reasons unknown, before he married my great-grandmother Lilly Ferguson of South Carolina. But what he changed his last name from is the mystery.

My great-grandfather James R. Stradwick was born circa 1893, we think in Pickens County, S.C., where he lived until the 1920s. My father says he was Native American (but I know you say Native American heritage is a common myth in African-American families). My great-grandparents then relocated to Wheeling, W.Va. They ultimately had seven children, including my grandfather Thomas, who was born in 1920 back in Pickens County. James died in 1980.

There is a group of Stradwicks in West Virginia, where my great-grandparents relocated to, but they have no way of finding out what our original family surname is. I would really appreciate any help with solving this mystery. —Kennelia Stradwick

There are a variety of reasons that a person might have changed his or her name at some point. He or she might have done a formal legal name change or perhaps just assumed another name. Although finding the exact reason your ancestor changed his name may be difficult to determine using genealogical records alone, knowing where and when he changed his name can give you some clues.

Since your great-grandfather James Stradwick lived mostly in the 20th century, there are more records that can help you determine when he changed his name than if he had lived in an earlier era. During his life, he experienced the Great Depression as well as two world wars. As a result of these events, a variety of documents and records were generated, including a draft-registration card and a Social Security application. Both documents could give you clues about his life.

In addition to these documents, census and vital records contain many details. By collecting as many documents as possible in both James’ early life and his later life in West Virginia, you can begin to put together a picture of his life story and hopefully discover who his parents were and why he changed his name.

Start With Records From After the Name Change

You can begin by gathering as much information as possible about James after he allegedly changed his name to Stradwick. It’s helpful to know which records are available and what time periods you’re researching. For example, South Carolina did not enact legislation requiring the registration of birth and deaths until 1915, and general compliance with this law didn’t really occur until 1918. Likewise, marriages were required to be recorded by the state in 1911. This means that you might not be able to find a record of his birth.

Searching the U.S. census collections from 1920 to 1940 is a great first step in this case. It sounds as if you have a good start on it, since you think he was probably born in Pickens County, S.C., between 1893 and 1895. In a quick search of the 1920 census, we see that James R. and Lily (note the spelling variation) M. Stradwick were living together in Easley, Pickens County. They already had three young children.