I have a gg grandfather that had a different surname than his father, FIVEASH for the son, FISH for the father. This was in Virginia mid to late 1700s.

How could I learn if this surname had been legally changed? Was it possible for some families to just "change" the surname without any documentation and for unknown reasons?

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    Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 22:20
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2 Answers 2


Even today, in many jurisdictions, it is legal to go by any name you choose provided the purpose is not to deceive or to obscure another crime. The procedures to "legally change" are mostly to do with the convenience of having your new name known and acknowledged by other people you deal with (on your bank account, drivers licence, passport etc). As late as the nineteenth century, that second stage of a change was not a concern. The people who needed to know your name probably met you everyday or at least weekly at church or the market. So it was quite possible to simply choose a new name and use it.

As Ezri indicates, sometimes the change was made by another person charged with recording the name. An illiterate man was unable to tell that the spelling had altered since last his name was written, he just made his mark beside the words.

Two related issues for you as a family historian are (a) was the name stable before 2xgreat grandfather (What was 3xgreat grandfather called?) and (b) how you record and document the change(s).

  • 1
    Even today, my last name (St. Pierre, with both a pesky period and a space) is difficult to find efficiently in most databases. (I usually end up asking, "can you look me up by phone number?") Every database designer and/or person responsible for data entry decides to spell it differently, including some very creative misspellings. Similar difficulties arise for people with non-ASCII characters (accents, eszett (e.g. Voß), etc) in their names, and for others with punctuation (O'Malley) or common spelling variations (McAdams vs MacAdams).
    – bstpierre
    Commented Oct 24, 2012 at 15:25

I would use Fiveash as the surname and Fish as the suffix. I have did the same thing for variant names in my own tree.

The person who recorded the entrants name would listen to the spoken pronunciation of the surname and spell it the best that they could, this was usually the way that names changed especially if the individual couldn't write in standard English.

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