Surname Changes in Genealogy | Why Would a Family Change Their Surname?

Connie Davis

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Surname changes in genealogy can create confusion when you’re looking for your family. Connie explains some reasons why a family would change their surname.

Surname Changes

Have you encountered unexpected surname changes in your DNA? Family historians rely on surnames as a guidepost while we research, and when a surname changes and that guidepost disappears, we fear we are going off course.

This can especially be true in YDNA research, when we are researching paternal lines. If the YDNA results show a different surname than the one you were initially searching for, you may have to alter your genealogy research and look for ancestors you had never considered. Having an open mind to surname changes can help us reach our research goals.

Depending on your family’s geographic past, surnames might be a recent development or something that’s been around for millennia. Surnames developed as a way to distinguish between people as populations grew, and those distinguishing characteristics (such as a farm name, a physical characteristic, or an occupation) may still be part of your heritage. If you were the cooper (barrel maker) in your village, you shared the surname with the Cooper in the next village even though you were not from the same genetic family. The patronymic naming system in Scandinavian countries (which is used in other localities as well) leads to many genetically unrelated people carrying the same surname.

Why Would a Family Change Their Surname?


There are many reasons why a family would change their surname. One of the most common reasons that genealogists encounter is due to immigration. While there’s the popular belief that a majority of immigrants had their surnames changed at Ellis Island, this is mostly a myth (The Godfather may be one reason to blame for popularizing this myth) (1).

The truth is that clerks at Ellis Island did not record names. Rather, they were recorded by steamship companies at the point of departure for passenger lists. These lists were then given to the Ellis Island clerks to review. Translators were present to help clerks review the lists with passengers as they disembarked.

There is a chance a passenger’s name was misspelled on the ship’s manifest, or the surname was transliterated incorrectly due to different alphabets, and a clerk corrected the name on the passenger list after speaking with the immigrant.

Sometimes immigrants altered their surname before moving to the U.S. (2). Many others tended to change their surname within the first five years of their arrival to the U.S. Before 1906, immigrants were not required to document their name change during the naturalization process, so finding original surnames can be more difficult (3). Many wanted to “Americanize” their name so that it was easier to fit in or do business within their local community.


The abolition of slavery in the US allowed for formerly enslaved people to choose their surname, marking emancipation as they became citizens. While some kept their enslaver’s surname, many others used surnames kept private from enslavers, or adopted names that held meaning. Surnames such as “Freeman” were used to mark their new status, and others chose common surnames such as “Williams,” “Brown,” or “Johnson” (4). These surnames may have changed frequently after emancipation, and genetically related people often carry different surnames.


For some, such as Native Americans and Indigenous people of Canada, surname changes may not have been their choice. Indian agents may have assigned surnames to families without respect to family relationships as part of forced assimilation. Men were often assigned a Christian surname and women were given the surname of their father or husband. These Christian names were then repeated throughout jurisdictions, which led to many families with no genetic relation sharing common last names that only go back a few generations (5).


Most of us form special attachments to the surnames in our family trees, starting with our own surname. In many cultures, women change their surnames upon marriage, although this may be slightly changing (6). (I’m an example of someone who kept the same surname even though I married.)

More men, one of my sons included, are beginning to change their surname to their wife’s surname when they marry (7). My son had already legally changed his surname to mine when he turned 18, as had his brother.

Pie charts showing the percentage of women in opposite-sex marriages who took their spouse’s last name, and unmarried women who say they would change their surname. Image from “About 8 in 10 women in opposite-sex marriages say they took their husband’s last name.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (September 6, 2023).


My two sons might appear in a YDNA surname project or a DNA match list as a puzzle since neither uses their father’s surname, and although they are full brothers, they don’t have the same surname.

A couple I know created a new surname for their children out of parts of their own surnames. They are the first carriers of their unique surname. More and more people are taking (or making) surnames that have personal meaning for them.

We may know or suspect surname changes for the reasons described previously. We may be aware of an ancestor trying to evade the law by changing their surname. Or we may not know about any of the above possibilities. An openness to surname changes provides the best opportunity to advance our research and adapt to the shifting surname.

The good news is that the DNA will always tell us who we are related to – back six generations or so with autosomal DNA and back further in time with YDNA and mitochondrial DNA. Our job as researchers is to keep an open mind about surnames and let the DNA be our new guidepost.

If you’re curious how YDNA can help you explore paternal surnames, whether they’ve changed over time or not, take our YDNA FREE Get Started Course to get started!

Take the YDNA FREE Get Started Course



  1.  Meszaros, Rosemary & Pennavaria, Katherine. GovDocs to the Rescue! Debunking an Immigration Myth, Government Documents Round Table, accessed January 16, 2024.
  2. Sutton, Philip. (2013, July 2). Why Your Family Name Was Not Changed at Ellis Island (and One That Was), New York Public Library, accessed January 16, 2024.
  3. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Immigrant Names Changes, accessed January 16, 2024.
  4. Craven, Julia. (2022, February 24). Many African American Last Names Hold Weight of Black History, News.  accessed January 16, 2024.
  5. The Indian Act Naming Policies, Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. accessed January 16, 2024.
  6. Lin, Luona. (2023, September 7). About 8 in 10 Women in Opposite-Sex Marriages Say They Took Their Husband’s Last Name. Research Center. accessed January 16, 2024.
  7. Fitzgibbons Shafer, Emily & Christensen, MacKenzie A. (2018). “Flipping the (Surname) Script: Men’s Nontraditional Surname Choice at Marriage,” Journal of Family Issues. volume 39, issue 11.

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<a href="" target="_self">Connie Davis</a>

Connie Davis

Connie Davis is a Genetic Genealogy Coach for Your DNA Guide. She is a professional genetic genealogist focused on using documentary evidence and genetic genealogy to solve family mysteries and confirm traced ancestors. Her personal research includes early colonial United States, southern United States, the Midwest, and Canada. Many of her ancestors heard the call of the west and became California pioneers. She has experience in African American research and an interest in reparative genealogy.


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