Friday, November 3, 2023

It's a Rule


Uncle John may have married a daughter of Polish immigrants named Aktabowski, but that doesn't mean his young bride wished to keep her name unchanged. His wife Bronisława soon morphed into a person named Blanche, but that wasn't the only change she and her Americanized siblings underwent. Though Blanche changed her surname legally by virtue of her marriage to John Laskowski, her many brothers eventually found their birth name of Aktabowski to be too cumbersome for the lively scene in New York City entertainment. Several of them not only chopped off the last syllables of their surname, but altered the initial sound, as well: from Aktabowski to Hark.

That action, of course, presents problems for those of us trying to trace our family history. How do we record such changes? What, for instance, do we do when we have no documentation to verify the name was changed legally, but we know from personal experience that those relatives went by the preferred, newer surname? There has got to be a rule, I think, but in looking for any, I can find others who, long ago, weighed in on the dilemma, but none advocating for any one standardized rule. With that in mind, I decided to formulate my own "style sheet" (to borrow an old copy editor's term) for handling how I represent the timeline of name changes. With that plan of attack, I can now simply say, "It's a rule."

Here's how I handle such name changes through any given person's lifetime. When I find a document showing a different name than the last time in which that person appeared in records—say, moving from the 1910 census to the 1920 census—I will make a note in that person's profile page on As I attach the specific record to the person's profile page, I open up the "edit" function and actually note that this was the first time I saw that new variation appearing, and what it had morphed from.

If, for instance, I found Blanche's brother listed in the 1910 census as an Aktabowski, living at home with the other confirmed members of his family, but then find his World War I draft registration card—with that same address listed for the card as had been for the previous census record—showing a different surname, I will flag the change in comments when I attach the new record to the brother's profile page.

As for the name heading the profile page for that individual, I list that person's name at birth, much like we do when handling any woman in our family tree (entering her by her maiden name). It is the next generation at which I will carry the new surname forward, mainly if birth records show the updated, Americanized surname.

Of course, if someone actually went through the legal process of changing their surname—as some immigrants did when filing naturalization requests—that provides an actual paper trail pinpointing date as well as substance of the change. Those records, however, are sometimes hard to come by, and the only indication may be circumstantial evidence. City directories, for instance, might be great for pinpointing when a person used a specific name, but they are not legal documents. 

I have yet, for instance, to find any record of legal action regarding my own paternal grandfather's name change. Seeing so many of his brother-in-law's wife's family changing their surname opens my eyes to just how many others engaged in the same process. Everything from prejudice against immigrants—especially those, at that time, from non-western European homelands—to desire to fit in at their place of work may have been motivations for such changes. Lack of money or know-how to navigate the legal maze of accomplishing such name changes may have complicated matters. But somehow, those names got changed—and have ever since kept the rest of us descendants puzzling over just how to demonstrate the connections.

As for Bronisława, er, Blanche, we'll be following her family this month—especially the collateral lines—to trace the roots of this Aktabowski line and its related surnames. But first, let's consider what became of her many siblings after her marriage to John Laskowski.

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