The season finale of "Who Do you Think You Are," featured Spike Lee tracing his maternal line in Dublin, Georgia. During the journey, it was discovered that his great great grandfather, Mars Jackson, was listed as Mars Woodall in the 1880 Census. The researcher assisting Mr. Lee suggested that this was an indication that Mars initially took the slave holding family surname but later changed it to Jackson. The researcher also concluded that Mars’ slave owner was James Woodall.
The discovery of Mars listed as a Woodall in the 1880 census is evidence but it is not enough to prove that he ever went under that name. Additional research would be required to substantiate the assertion of an actual name change.
For example, my great great great grandfather Essex Simpson (1841-1916) was listed as E. Platt in the 1870 U.S. Census for Leon County, Texas. In addition, he and his family were the only Platts listed in the county. I initially thought this was a case of a name changed, especially since he was listed as Simpson in every census from 1880-1910. However after doing additional research and examining county records (i.e. court, deed, tax rolls and voter registration) from 1866-1916, I found he was consistently listed as Essex Simpson. I have concluded that the 1870 census listing was not a case of a name changed.
Now the appearance of the surname Platt does raise several questions:
a) Is this the name of a previous slave owner?
b) Who was the informant?
c) Was Platt the maiden name of his mother and wife or just an alias?
Although, the federal censuses are wonderful sources for family researchers they are full of errors ranging from names, ages, race/color, etc. Common reasons for the errors are with the informant or with the census taker. Unlike birth or death certificate which list the informant, censuses do not list the informant so it is virtually impossible to know who provided the information to the census taker. The informant could have been the head of the household, the wife, child or even a neighbor. In addition, the informant could have given incorrect information or used an alias.
Therefore, censuses alone are not enough to substantiate a name change. The census record must be used in conjunction with others sources to prove or disprove a name change.