What Does a Child’s Name Change Mean?

“Adoption” is one of those words that has meanings both inside and outside the law. It’s also one of those words that gets thrown around in genealogical writing, genealogical software, and any time families and relationships are written about. It is also a relationship that genealogy researchers sometimes assume took place during a time period when legal practices were different than they were today.

My great-great-grandmother was born in 1851 in Illinois. Her father died less than five years later and her mother was married to another long-term husband by 1859. My great-great-grandmother was listed with that step-father’s last name in the 1860 census and in her 1868 marriage record.

Was she adopted by him? Do those references prove that she was? A census taker may have simply listed all the children in a household by the same last name whether they were adopted. This practice was common in census records in the 19th century. when children were living with their step-father. The marriage reference is more suggestive of an adoption and she is stated as being his daughter in a letter of permission. Her guardianship record names others as her guardian (not the later step-father) and being a guardian of a child’s estate is not the same thing as formally adopting them.

Were she legally adopted by her step-father, she would have been an heir to his estate as would her sister who is also claimed by some to have been legally adopted by him. Neither were listed as heirs. Neither were listed in any list of children of the step-father in his obituary or any other records of his children created during or shortly after his life time.

Children’s names often get unofficially changed to that of their step-father. It does not mean they were formally adopted. There is a difference. Formal adoptions in the 19th century were much less common than they are today.