Does My Ancestor’s Name Change Hide a Paternity Issue?

Tracing Your Roots: Untangling a thicket of spelling variations and mismatched details in documents.

Generic image
Generic image Thinkstock

Dear Professor Gates:

I’d like to get to the bottom of a puzzling name change in my family’s past. My great-grandfather Jeffrey Bedard (born circa 1856) started life as Jeffrey Nesmith, according to the 1870 census of Turkey, Williamsburg County, S.C., where he lived with Prince and Peggy Nesmith, listed as his parents, and several siblings. Then, in the 1880 census, he shows up as Jeffrey “Vedard,” still living in Turkey, Williamsburg County. In subsequent censuses through 1920, Jeffrey’s name “settles” on Bedard. Finally, a 1929 death certificate for Jeffrey “Bedderd” indicates his father’s name as Jeff Bedderd and his mother’s name as Peggy Nesmith, and his age as 55 (an error, I believe).

Here’s where it gets tricky: There’s a Jeffrey “Beddard” who shows up in the 1880 census in Mingo, Williamsburg County, S.C., born around the same time as the “other” Jeffrey. Both of Jeffrey’s spouses are named Martha, yet their young sons have different names, and one is 9 months old and the other is 2. I wonder if they are the same person. Interestingly, maybe just coincidentally, the enumerator for this census is a former slaveholder named William Nesmith.

There were no other Bedards in the area during the 19th century. I searched for Jeffrey Bedards in the United States born around 1820 on on the off chance of finding an elder Bedard and came up with some Illinois public land purchases in the 1850s made by some “J. Bedards.”

I’d like help determining who Jeffrey Bedard’s true father might have been, which might explain why he changed his name. Or maybe there was some sort of paternity issue that prompted Jeffrey to dissociate himself from the Nesmiths, if he was a white slaveholding Nesmith’s son? —Constance Bryan

Because most African Americans were not enumerated in the U.S. census records until 1870, finding records of them for this year can give you crucial details that help you document the lives of your ancestors. However, sometimes these records give conflicting or incorrect information, which can bring up more questions than answers. Moreover, the lack of details in earlier records can leave you unsure whether the record you found is really for your ancestor.

Here are a few tips for getting the most out of census records for 1870 and beyond, as well as other suggestions to help you figure out the father of Jeffrey Bedard. (Warning: There are numerous name-spelling variations!)

Are the Two 1880 Census Records Both for the Same Jeffrey?

In comparing the two census records for Jeffrey Vedard of Turkey Township and Jeff Beddard of the nearby Mingo Township, we see a lot of similarities. First, they were both listed as mulatto men who were married to a black woman named Martha. There are some slight differences between their spouses and their children. Martha, living with Jeff Vedard, was listed as 18 years old, and they had a 9-month-old mulatto son named Thomas. The other entry shows that Martha, the wife of Jeff Beddard, was 20 years old, a little bit older, and they had a 2-year-old son named James, who was classified as black.

Are these differences between their wives and children significant? To determine this, it’s important to know how factors such as race and age were recorded in census records. It’s not uncommon for ages in census records to be off by a year or two. Depending on when a person’s birthday falls and when the record was enumerated, his or her calculated year of birth (age minus census year) might be a little different from what you find in other documents, like vital records.