Was this dude my great-grandfather...or an IMPOSTOR?!
September 25, 2007 12:15 PM   Subscribe

If my maternal grandfather was my (alleged?) great-grandfather's biological son, why would his last name be different from both of his parents'?

In my great-grandfather's obituary (1896-1960), which I found online and am positive is the right person, his children (who were my great-aunts/uncles & grandfather) were listed.

All male/unmarried children of my great-grandfather listed in that obit have a completely different last name from that of my great-grandfather & great-grandmother. This completely different last name is my mother's maiden name.

So, it seems like he is probably not really my great-grandfather after all, and that maybe these were children from a previous marriage of my great-grandmother's.

I'm trying to figure out if there was any reason why they would change the last names of their children if they are, in fact, both his biological parents. My Google attempts turned up nothing but discussions on giving a child both parents' last names.

So...is there a reason why a pioneering family in the US Northwest (actually, in a territory at the time) would change the last names of both of their children?

It is definitely not to make the name more "Americanized". My great-grandparents' last names was very "typical" American, it's a normal English word, actually. My grandfather's last name, however, seems to be German.

posted by dumbledore69 to Society & Culture (11 answers total)
Check past census records to see if you can tell when he got married. And check to see if any of the children are older than the marriage might suggest.

As for reasons, perhaps he didn't like his parents and wanted to honour another relative. Maybe his parent's name was German and was changed when he was born or when they emigrated and he decided to change it back.
posted by acoutu at 12:30 PM on September 25, 2007

My grandfather had a (huge) falling out with his family when he was young. He left the east coast for the west, and when his first was born (my father) he purposely spelled his last name wrong on the birth certificate, and did the same with his other six kids. He never told my father or his siblings that Grandfather's name was spelled differently than theirs. They only found out when Grandmother got sick and one of the kids had to help out with the medical stuff. Apparently Grandfather didn't want his family to ever be able to find him or his offspring, and spelling their name differently was a sure way to do that. His was a Smith/Smyth type of thing (but with a way less common name), so your story is a bit different than mine, but it's possible that all the kids are your great-grandfather's, but there's another family secret going on.
posted by dogmom at 12:33 PM on September 25, 2007

your best bet is to track down your grandfather's birth certificate and see who the listed father is. you can usually get these from the state's department of health.

census record might help, too, as would various genealogy databases.

although a previous marriage for the great-grandmother sounds like the most logical explanation. she was probably widowed, as i don't think divorce was so popular back then.
posted by thinkingwoman at 12:39 PM on September 25, 2007

Response by poster: This is becoming more interesting, since it might be that I can't rule him out as a great-grandfather. To address a couple of things:

Check past census records to see if you can tell when he got married. And check to see if any of the children are older than the marriage might suggest.

Both great-grandparents were born in the same year. Great-grandfather died at the age of 60, great-grandmother in her late 90's (too bad I didn't think to ask her when I was 8). My entire maternal side of the family is gone except some distant & estranged relatives.

His was a Smith/Smyth type of thing (but with a way less common name), so your story is a bit different than mine

The difference in last names is interesting. The original last name is an everyday English word for something used in baking. The second last name, the German word, is also a common word related to baking. And they both start with the same letter. So...maybe I'm drawing conclusions where there are none.

I will have to look into census records & the like to find out more...first I have to try & figure out where people lived and when. The obituaries provide some insight, and I know they all hung around Washington & Oregon, but that includes a lot of settlements & towns.
posted by dumbledore69 at 12:48 PM on September 25, 2007

In addition to the possibilities listed:

* Changed name to become a soldier (either did not want an "enemy" sounding last name -- my own grandfather did this -- or took the name of an older boy so he could enlist).

* Changed name to start over in a new part of the country (maybe leaving debts, prison record, kids, or just plain bad memories behind).

* Wanted to simplify his name and/or the spelling thereof (this happened several generations back in a friend's family).
posted by ilsa at 1:29 PM on September 25, 2007

So his name is listed as "Pepper" and his children are "Pfeiffer" or similar? Is he first-generation American? Perhaps his official name was changed by Immigration functionaries to an "Americanized" version, but he wanted his kids to have the actual family name?
posted by Rock Steady at 1:30 PM on September 25, 2007

You say your great-grandfather was born in 1896. So his first children started being born around 1916, say? And he possibly switched some of his kids' surnames to a German one from an English one?

That sounds very odd, especially given that place and time. German-Americans, especially in the American midwest and rural areas (and Canada) faced definite discrimination during WWI -- which encompasses that 1916 timeframe when the kids were born -- and many people changed their names away from German surnames at that point. Think of the joke in "Back to the Future, Part III" where Doc Brown tells Marty his family name used to be Von Braun until they changed it during WWI. Many German-Americans were even forced to "register" with their state/territory governments (example from Kansas). So I can't imagine a parent would purposely pick a new surname for his kids during that time period that would get them slurred as "pro-Kaiser".

That being said, may I flog one of my favorite hobbyhorses, genetic genealogy, as a potentially great solution to your problem, since you're dealing with male descendants and thus this should be relatively easy to test? Send in a little spit to a company like FamilyTreeDNA and find out if it better matches either relatives (or random people) who carry either surname #1 or surname #2. Wait two months and you should have an answer.
posted by Asparagirl at 1:37 PM on September 25, 2007

Response by poster: Ok...mystery solved. And sadly, the dude is an impostor.

I started Googling variations of my great aunts' and great uncle's names and found my real great grandfather.

It is interesting because he didn't die until he was 76. So, I guess my great-grandfather & great-grandmother got separated/divorced sometime between the 1920's-1940's, and my real great-grandfather went on to have children with a newer, younger wife.

I guess I really didn't think people got separated/divorced often back then, but I suppose after the 1920's it might have become more common. I guess I'll have to research more.

What I find especially interesting about all of this is that this side of my family is full of extremely devout Christians. My grandfather wound up marrying a very devout Catholic, and they later got divorced/separated as well. That side of my family doesn't have much luck with making marriages work, not even in the old days, I guess.
posted by dumbledore69 at 1:44 PM on September 25, 2007

Response by poster: So his name is listed as "Pepper" and his children are "Pfeiffer" or similar? Is he first-generation American?

The name was slightly different. Think like the difference between "Rolling pin" and the German word for "Dough". Close but not exact.

Of course the point is moot now.

Thanks for helping me, everyone! I can't wait to start researching my dad's side, what with my grandfather having arrived here illegally as a teen and refusing to talk about where he was from. It's gonna be a blast!
posted by dumbledore69 at 1:49 PM on September 25, 2007

Dumbledore, at some point you should do a new FPP about resources for doing the kind of research you're doing -- I'm very interested, and others likely will be also.
posted by davejay at 2:12 PM on September 25, 2007

Free Searchable Databases for Genealogists.
From MeFite rinkjustice.
posted by dhartung at 7:35 PM on September 25, 2007

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