Navigating Ancestors and Their Changing Surnames

We all have them – ancestors who either can’t be found at all or who seemingly disappear without a trace. I’m not talking about people who “changed their surname at Ellis Island” because that really didn’t happen. Immigrants were a lot more worried about being allowed to enter the country than they were about changing their names.

I’m also not talking about people who disappeared because they died and left no paper trail or those who simply moved from one place to another and haven’t been found.


I’m talking about the ancestors who really did change their surnames or vacillated, going back and forth between two or more names.

I don’t have any French-Canadian ancestry, but one example would be the dit names, or aliases.

Aliases, or second surnames, and not being used for untoward purposes, were common through time and in various cultures. They were used for several reasons.

My maiden name is Sabo, but it really wasn’t. That’s because my great grandfather, for some unknown reason, changed the family name in the early 1900s when they were living in Passaic, New Jersey. My great grandfather, Stephen Sabo, was born Stephen Kucharik. Both surnames are occupational names. Sabo means tailor and Kucharik means cook. The first is Hungarian and the second Slovak. Now that I know more about my Carpatho-Rusyn heritage and the political factions in the early 20th century, I wonder if Stephen was signaling his support of Hungary and magyarization (becoming more like Hungarians) versus Russian and Ukrainian support.

Imagine my complete surprise when I pieced together Stephen’s family in Vysna Sebastova before he emigrated to the United States. Guess what! For the longest time, I thought Stephen’s father, John Kucharik, died when he was a young boy and his mother married (2) John Tomko. It bothered me that I never found a burial for John Kucharik nor a marriage record to John Tomko.

Eventually, as I discovered baptisms for Maria’s children with Mr. Tomko, the answer jumped right off the page at me. The entries alternated between the father being John Kucharik and John Tomko.

Tomko, or Kucharik, was a third surname linked to one family on the paternal branch of my family tree.

Because Vysna Sebastova is a small place, the name change wasn’t because of too many people with the same name. It could have come about for two other reasons. (1) If there was an illegitimate birth, and the father acknowledged the baby but didn’t marry the mother, the child might be recognized by the mother’s surname and/or alias the father’s surname. (2) A child’s father died and the mother remarried. That child would sometimes be called by his birth father’s surname and/or alias the stepfather’s surname.

If you have Scandinavian heritage, you likely have encountered another reason for surname changes. Scandinavian, for centuries (well into the 19th century) used a patronymic naming system.

If born in Scandinavia in the 19th century or earlier, my mother’s birth name would have been Doris Vernonsdatter, “Vernon’s daughter.” However, her father would have been Vernon Charleson “Charles’s son” and his father would have been Charles Calvinson “Calvin’s son” and so on.

By the 19th century, surnames in Scandinavia were beginning to stabilize so that one family kept the same surname in succeeding generations. Families in larger cities, like Copenhagen, tended to standardize their surname at an earlier point in time than did rural residents.

How were surnames chosen? Some opted to keep their patronymic name, but in the masculine form. Jensen and Johannsen were kept, while Jensdatter was dropped.

Sometimes, families kept a surname handed out by the military. Regiments couldn’t have five John Johnsons running around, so one or more was assigned a different name. I’ve been told that one of my Swedish surnames, Molin, was a common military name.

Still others might have simply picked a surname they liked and that became the family name.

One more instance of dual surnames happened when one or more family members opted to Americanize or shorten a surname or a member opted to unilaterally change his surname.

This can be a real problem for researchers, particularly if the surname is common. My Loyalist Stewart family is found with that spelling until the mid-1800s, when the spelling begins alternating with Stuart.

According to family lore, that didn’t randomly happen. My 2X great grandmother, Elida Hicks Stewart, felt that the Stuart spelling was more French. Part of the family used Stuart, while another branch continued with the original Stewart.

What do all of these name change scenarios have in common? They all mean that a researcher needs to be on the lookout twice for the same person or family and a thorough analysis must be completed to determine whether they are one and the same person/families or not.

One last comment since this post is about surnames. Surnames originated when too many people had the same given names and had to be sorted out. One of the first surname formats was the patronymic system I’ve discussed. Surnames were created based on location (e.g. John Hill – John who lived on a hill versus John Rivers, who lived by the water), occupations, e.g. Miller and Smith, and physical traits (John Long, John Short, etc.)

I’ve often wondered what the origin of Stufflebean was – Stopplebein in its early German form. Well, I tried separating the name into Stoppel and bein. Google Translate said the English equivalent is STUBBLE LEG.

Stoppelbein in all its forms is not found anywhere before the early 1600s. The earliest known family progenitor was one Johannes Stoppelbein, born about 1600, who married Elisabeth (MNU). Their only known child was Hans Valentine Stoppelbein, born in 1634 in Langenlonsheim, Germany.

I have to wonder if Johannes or an ancestor before him had a deformed leg, either at birth or due to some accident and was assigned Stoppelbein as his name.




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