Why Did My Great-Granddad Change His Name?

Generic image
Generic image

Dear Professor Gates:

My great-grandfather married my great-grandmother under the name “Roy Parker” and also served in World War I under that name. However, when he died, his brother Robert Hagen notified the coroner that “Roy Parker” was actually “Henry Hagen.” Roy Parker/Henry Hagen died in Missouri in 1935.

How do I find out who he was, where he came from and why he may have changed his name?

My grandmother didn’t know her father. “Roy Parker’s” military records were destroyed in the fire at the National Archives. There are no census records for Hagens—Robert or Henry—from 1890 to 1910 that I can find. “Roy Parker” does appear on the 1920 census with my great-grandmother “Lula Parker.” Roy Parker is not on the 1930 census. —Luauna Parker


Among answers you told us you’re seeking is why Roy Parker, who died in 1935, changed his name from “Henry Hagen.” In the process of trying to answer that, our research took a surprising turn. But first things first.

What Do We Know About Him as “Roy Parker”?

You said you were able to locate Roy Parker living with his wife, Lula, in the 1920 U.S. census. We located Roy and Lula Parker living in Justice Precinct 1, Bowie, Texas, in 1920. According to the census, Roy Parker was 27 years old at the time the census was enumerated and he was born in Missouri. This places his birth circa 1893. You may notice, moving forward, that birth dates can vary according to the record, but in locating other records, you should pay attention to those that record a birth date close to 1893.

The census further notes that both his parents were from Missouri. This suggests that his family lived in Missouri for at least two generations. The record also tells you that Roy Parker’s wife, Lula, was born in Texas circa 1895. Her father was born in Louisiana, and her mother was born in Texas. Since the couple is living in Texas and Lula was born there, it suggests that Roy Parker likely moved to Texas before their marriage and the couple probably married at that location.

You indicated that you were unable to locate Roy Parker in the 1930 census but that you know he died in Missouri in 1935. Searching for a record for his wife, Lula, may help you find more clues about Roy Parker. Lula Parker was residing in Precinct 3, Austin, Texas, in 1930. She was living with her children: Resetta Parker, age 9; Rogers Parker, age 7; and Emilly Parker, age 4.


The record states that Lula Parker was a black female born circa 1895 in Texas. This matches the information in the 1920 census for Lula. It also states that she is married, though Roy Parker is not in the household. Perhaps he was already in Missouri by 1930 and was not in the household at the time the census was enumerated.

What this record does tell you is that Roy and Lula’s three children listed here were all born in Texas. You could search Texas Birth Certificates, 1903-1935Texas Birth Index, 1903-1997; or Texas Births and Christenings, 1840-1981 for their birth records. Locating their birth or death records may tell you more about Roy Parker/Henry Hagen.


When Exactly Did “Roy Parker” Die?

You stated that your great-grandfather enlisted in World War I under the name Roy Parker. While his service records may have been destroyed, you may be able to locate some information about him from his enlistment record. The collection U.S. Army Register of Enlistments, 1798-1914 records a Roy Parker who enlisted June 7, 1912, at Jefferson, Mo. According to this record, he was born in Sedalia, Mo., and was 18 years and 9 months of age when he enlisted. This places his birth in August or September 1893. His complexion was described as “dark.” It also states that he was honorably discharged on June 6, 1915. This information could be a match for your Roy Parker.


Interestingly enough, there is also a registration card for Roy Parker in the collection World War II Draft Registration Cards, 1942. According to the record, Roy Parker was born Aug. 5, 1893, in Sedalia. In the section of the form that asks him to list a person who will always know his address, he provides the contact information for Lula Parker at 2174 E. Market, Stockton, Calif., which is also the address he provided for himself.

On the back of the card, his race was recorded as “black,” his height was 5 feet 5½ inches and he weighed 187 pounds. This seems to suggest that this is the same man who appeared in the 1920 census. This is interesting because you have information indicating that he died in 1935 in Missouri. It seems a strange coincidence that this Roy Parker was the same age as your Roy Parker and had a wife with the same name as your Roy Parker’s.


If you have a death certificate that you know is for your Roy Parker, than you may be able to rule out this man as your possible ancestor. However, if you don’t have documents proving his death, you may want to investigate this possibility further. The 1940 U.S. census is available to search. Since you know that the Roy Parker in the draft registration was likely living in Stockton in 1940 (the draft registration was dated 1942), you could expand your search to California census records to help you determine if this is your Roy Parker.

Roy Parker in the enlistment and draft records also applied for a military headstone, the record of which can be found in the collection U.S. Headstone Applications for Military Veterans, 1925-1963. According to this record, he was buried in Riverview Cemetery in Brawley, Imperial County, Calif., on Aug. 15, 1959. Was he buried with any family members? Who purchased the plot? A local newspaper might provide a death announcement or obituary for Roy Parker that may contain information about his family.


As for Hagen’s surname, if you cannot find Robert or Henry Hagen in census records in Missouri, you might try other record collections. FamilySearch has a number of Missouri collections you can search or browse. You could try doing broad searches for the surname, keeping in mind that the spelling may vary by record, and look for any records that seem to match what you know about the family. Since the service records for Roy Parker indicate that he was born in Sedalia, Mo., you might start with records in Pettis County, where Sedalia is the county seat.

You may also benefit from focusing your search on Robert Hagen, Roy Parker/Henry Hagen’s alleged brother. Hopefully you have already uncovered additional clues in your search for records about Roy Parker that will help you locate ones for Robert Hagen.


Good luck!

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.

This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan Siekman, 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.

Share This Story

Get our `newsletter`