Say I have a person legally born (for example) as Harry William Smith, but he was known by everyone since his teenage years as Buddy. His father passed away when he was young and his mother remarried a Jones and he started using his step-father's surname. Prior to getting married, he legally changed his name to Harry William Jones changing just his surname but not his given names.

So he was born as Harry William Smith, died as Harry William Jones but was known as Buddy Jones from his teen-age years on. He has Buddy Jones recorded on his wedding certificate, obituary and headstone. Most of the records I find him in list him as Buddy Jones.

I see several possibilities to enter his given name:

  • Harry William (Buddy)
  • Harry William "Buddy"
  • (Buddy) Harry William
  • "Buddy" Harry William
  • Buddy (Harry William)
  • Buddy (born as Harry William)

and his Surname:

  • Smith (Jones)
  • (Smith) Jones
  • Jones (born as Smith)
  • Smith (changed to Jones)

Note: Online trees do not have a maiden name field for males.

How should I best include him in an online tree (e.g. Ancestry, MyHeritage, etc.) so that I both indicate his legal birth name but still attract the hints from his "Known As" given name and legally changed surname?

4 Answers 4


Ancestry's tree allows the addition of further names that are referred to as Alternate Names - an Alternate can be marked as the Primary if it is desired to swap them.

That being so, I'd record each of the names separately and never as a composite.

Which gets set as the Primary is a moot point. Tradition says that we should use the name at birth - I am not happy with that if the most common name is not the birth name - especially if only one name is visible in the charts.

What's to be done if there is no possibility of Alternates, I don't know.

  • Caveat - I have not experimented to see if the Alternate Names are used in hints or searches in Ancestry. I fear perhaps not.
    – AdrianB38
    Oct 28, 2019 at 18:18
  • 2
    I agree with Adrian here. I doubt that 'alternate names' are treated with the importance that they should. I have cases of adoption and fostering-with-name-change. These are not just instances of nicknames or stage-names and so should be treated as real alternates. One point I would emphasise from this answer is to not use any brackets, quotes, etc., and keep the entered names as real names.
    – ACProctor
    Oct 28, 2019 at 22:35
  • Interesting thought, Tony. So I experimented at Ancestry and MyHeritage. They both seem to strip off any special characters in the search and Smith Jones, "Smith" Jones and (Smith) Jones all give the same search results that include people with either surname.
    – lkessler
    Oct 28, 2019 at 23:46
  • That's just a fluke, Louis. The use of quotes, brackets, etc., is a formatting issue -- and possibly one that varies according to locale -- and that's why I added the note. In an ideal world, what the software holds and what the end-user sees for a name (or any field) would be recognised as being different aspects.
    – ACProctor
    Nov 4, 2019 at 14:08

I found an Elizabeth Shown Mills post on her blog with A Dozen Conventions You Want to Know About.

She says (Rule 2):

"When the person used a nickname, we put that nickname in quotation marks after the given names. Example: Robert Edward “Ted” Turner."

She also says (Rule 4):

When we write the name of a married female of the past, we put the maiden name in parentheses. Example: Dorothea “Dolly” (Dandridge) Madison.

Rule 4 seems to imply that a birth surname (male or female) should be in parentheses before later surnames.

Therefore, Ms. Mills' rules suggest the following:

enter image description here

  • I use the maiden name in parenthesis, following the newspaper convention of doing so (but alas, [citation needed]).
    – Jan Murphy
    Nov 2, 2019 at 20:31

The way that I record such a person's name in an Ancestry online tree is:

enter image description here

  • First and Middle Name: Harry William
  • Last Name: Smith (Jones) - I place Jones in round brackets because it is a Last Name that he used (or was used for him) after the one given at birth/baptism.
  • Suffix: "Buddy" - this field seems to get searched and to attract hints. Although this is something of a re-purposing for that field I like that it keeps all of his names together in one place.
  • 1
    Interesting idea, to put the Known As name in the suffix.
    – lkessler
    Oct 28, 2019 at 23:34
  • Ancestry has "Also Known As" facts in addition to alternate Name facts. I put nicknames and diminutives in AKA facts because it's more presentable in reports. But, if your Ancestry tree isn't synched to a desktop database, the searchability of the suffix field is kind of a cute trick.
    – cleaverkin
    Oct 29, 2019 at 18:55

For written materials, I would follow what Elizabeth Shown Mills' said, as outlined in this previous answer. This answer is intended as a supplement -- a place to record technical information.


My experience with searching from an online Ancestry tree for women is that the search picks up the married surname and shows me records for people with the married surname. I would expect the same thing to happen for men who have one surname in the primary field and another in the alternate name field.

Ancestry's support site is both difficult to search and navigate and stingy with information, so I haven't been able to find a white paper or a link to a support article. If I can find more information, I'll add the link below.

RootsMagic's page RootsMagic and Ancestry has a link to the RootsMagic Magic Guide on using RootsMagic's TreeShare (direct link under Further Reading) which discusses the Ancestry API and how the various name fields are handled (or not) while using RootsMagic's TreeShare and Web Hints feature.

Other sites

Information about My Heritage and other sites will be added here as I discover it.

Further reading and viewing:

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