Monday, November 14, 2016

Researching Early (Legal) Name Changes in Massachusetts

A page from the 1905 Acts and Resolves 
listing the name changes that occurred
in Essex and Franklin counties during
the year 1904. 

Everyone has the right to legally go by the name of their choice, as long as it is not done for illegal or fraudulent purposes.  Today, the procedure for changing your name in Massachusetts includes filling out a form (petition), and filing the petition with your county’s Probate and Family Court (or the Juvenile Court for minors).  For more information, visit:

Prior to 1852, if an individual wanted to change their name, he or she had to submit a petition to the General Court; once approved, the petitions were subsequently published as special acts of the legislature.  Such special acts can be helpful to researchers and genealogists who are trying to track down the original name of a person, the name they legally adopted, when the person initiated the change, and in what city they were residing at the time.  Not too long ago it was discovered that the Gloucester painter formerly known incorrectly as “Fitz Hugh Lane” had actually adopted and used the name “Fitz Henry Lane” in his lifetime, as recorded in Chapter 124 of the Acts of 1832.  Such special acts containing name changes can be found, either by browsing or using a keyword search, in the library’s acts database-- which covers the years 1692 through 2010:
An 1835 pencil drawing of Fitz Henry Lane
by Robert Cooke.  Three years earlier Lane was
known by his birth name Nathaniel Rogers
Lane. By Robert Cooke (American
Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Mass.)
 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Another great resource collated and published by the Secretary of the Commonwealth back in 1893 is the book List of Persons Whose Names Have Been Changed in Massachusetts: 1780-1892.  Unlike the acts database, it also includes data from the annual name change returns submitted to the Secretary by the county probate courts.  An online version of this book is also viewable and downloadable through

If you are looking for information after 1892, annual lists of name changes can also be found in the Acts and Resolves volumes from 1853 through 1913; these volumes have been digitized and can be accessed via the library’s website. 

Original petitions submitted to the legislature that were and were not approved can be found at the Massachusetts State Archives.

Kaitlin Connolly
Reference Department