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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.

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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.

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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.

From this record, we see that James was listed as being 25 years old and working as a fireman at a cotton mill. It also gives his racial category as “B,” which means that, at least to the person recording the census record, his racial identity was black. You now have confirmed that he changed his name before 1920, because he was married to Lily by this year (which matches your family’s story).

Since he was 25 years old in 1920, he was the right age to be eligible for the draft in World War I. Digital images of many of the World War I draft-registration cards are available on genealogy sites, including the free site FamilySearch and the subscription site Ancestry.com. These records can include some useful information, such as exact birth dates, place of birth and marital status.

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Searching this collection, we found another record of James Stradwick. His draft-registration card gives his full name as James Henry Rosemond Stradwicks (sic). According to the draft card, he was born on May 23, 1896, in Asheville, N.C. He was living in Easley in 1917 with his wife and two children. Here you find some new information about James, showing that he was born in North Carolina instead of South Carolina.

Follow the Paper Trail Back in Time

Now that you have this information, you can keep going back further by searching for a record of him in the 1910 census. In our search, we did find one possible record that shows a 14-year-old boy named James Struddicks living with his grandmother Hager McLure and his 13-year-old sister, Nancy Struddicks, in Easley. Could this be a record of James?

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His birthplace was listed as South Carolina, but it’s important to remember that the information you find on census records can be inaccurate. Also, although his name was spelled “Studdicks” on the census record, this may not be the correct spelling of his surname, since many census takers just wrote down surnames as they heard them. With this record, you find that James may have still been using the Stradwick (or at least a very similar name) at age 14.

Learn More by Doubling Back (or, in This Case, Forward)

Although records of James living in Pickens County may give you some information about his early life, searching for records of James in West Virginia may also help you determine the names of his parents. If he did change his last name, perhaps a record of his death will give his father’s real name.

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Since James lived into 1980, he received a Social Security number. The Social Security system was created after the Great Depression as a way to provide for those who were unable to work, such as the disabled and elderly. Once a person has died, his or her death is reported to the Social Security Administration and the information is included in the Social Security Death Index, or SSDI. This index contains a record of a person’s full name, birth date, death date, state where the Social Security number was issued and the person’s last residence.

The SSDI is available on the New England Historic Genealogical Society’s American Ancestors site, the free genealogy website FamilySearch and the paid subscription sites Ancestry.com and GenealogyBank.com. A search of this index reveals that James Stradwick was born on May 23, 1893, and died in January of 1980 at Marion, W.Va. Interestingly, the date May 23 matches his birthday on his draft-registration card, but the year is different.

So how do you determine in which year he was actually born? Remember, just because a record is “official” doesn’t necessarily mean that the information contained in that record is correct. Generally, earlier records might give you a better indication of his birth year, since they were closer to the actual event. You also have to look at all of the records you collect for James as a whole to determine what was his most likely year of birth.

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In addition to the SSDI, the Social Security Administration also holds a record of an application for a Social Security card, which contains even more information, such as a person’s birth date, birthplace and parents’ names. Since we did find James Stradwick in the SSDI, a good next step is to order a copy of his Social Security application from the Social Security Administration to see if it lists his parents’ names and additional information about James.

This application can be requested online at the SSA website. It will only release records for a person who is more than 120 years old or if there is proof of his or her death (like an obituary, death certificate or newspaper article). If a person is included in the SSDI, this is generally accepted as proof of death.

In addition to records of James at the federal level, you will also want to search records held by the state of West Virginia. The West Virginia Division of Culture and History has digitized many of its vital records from about 1970 and earlier. The database is free to search and contains digital images of many vital records. Death records that are 50 years and older can be searched through this database. Because James died in 1980, his death record is not available online, but we do find that his wife, Lillie (note a second spelling variation), died at the age of 49 in 1944. A full image of her death record is viewable here. Since she died in the 1940s, you know it’s possible for James to have remarried.

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The West Virginia Division of Culture and History’s website also contains a fully searchable database of marriage records from around 1970 and earlier. A search of the Stradwick name reveals that James got married again in 1963 at age 70 to Flossie Miller. It lists them both as being “Col.,” which is short for “Colored.” A full image of his second-marriage record is viewable here.

The record also gives his parents’ names as Andrew and Eliza (McClure) Stradwick and shows that he was born on May 23, 1893, in Asheville. From this one record, you now know the names of his parents, and you have even more proof that he was born in Asheville!

To confirm this, the next step is to research his father, Andrew Stradwick. A quick search of Ancestry.com for an Andrew Stradwick living in Asheville gives us an entry in the 1896 City Directory of Asheville. The entry shows that Andrew W. Stradwick was an African-American laborer who was living at 35 Buttrick St. in Asheville.

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Now you know that James’ father was using the Stradwick surname as well. From all of these records, it now seems possible that James never changed his last name and that he was born with the surname Stradwick.

Mystery Solved? Don’t Stop There

To learn more about the origin of your family’s surname, you will want to continue your research by searching for more records of Andrew W. Stradwick. Try to determine where and when he was born, and see if you can find his parents’ names or where his parents were living. If you are able to trace the Stradwick family to the 1870 census, our previous article about tracing African-American surnames may provide you with more guidance in finding the origin of your family’s unique name.

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If you are still curious to find out if you have Native American heritage, I’ll note again what you acknowledge in your question: While a small percentage of African Americans do have a Native American ancestor (only 1 percent have more than 5 percent Native American ancestry, and roughly 5 percent have at least 2 percent Native American ancestry), the average black person has only 0.7 percent. But you might be an exception. Take a DNA test from one of the reputable testing companies (AncestryDNA, FamilyTreeDNA and 23andMe are all superb) and find out!

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

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This answer was provided in consultation with Kristin Britanik, a researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.