Use of Aliases - an Overview

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While no article can cover this subject thoroughly - entire books have been written about it - an overview of the use of aliases may help researchers discover connections within their families. Particular problems arise in identifying some individuals because many families changed their surnames, used patronomics, and had more than one living child with the same given name. "Cadet" branches of families also existed, with the same surname(s), further confusing records.

The period during which aliases were most used coincided with the development of surnames, approximately 1460 to 1650, and continued to be used for much longer periods, even into the 1800's.

What properly constitutes an alias? The Online 1911 Encyclopedia says: ALIAS - (Latin for "another time"; or "otherwise") a term used to connect the different names of a person who has passed under more than one, in order to conceal his identity, or for other reasons; or, compendiously, to describe the adopted name. The expression "alias dictus" was formerly used in legal indictments, and pleadings, where absolute precision was necessary in identifying the person to be charged, as "John Jones, alias dictus James Smith." The adoption of a name other than a man's baptismal or surname need not necessarily be for the purpose of deception or fraud; pseudonyms or nicknames fall thus under the description of an alias." '''Bold text The presumption seems to be that an alias was primarily used to conceal or disguise an identity; quite the opposite case was true in earlier times, when the intention seemed to be to identify one individual from another.

By the 1500's, the practice of using alias surnames was sufficiently established for them to be recorded in official documents, as evidenced by frequent mentions in various registers, wills, and very importantly, in manorial court documents.

The use of alias' seems to fall within one of five basic reasons:

1. Retention of patronymics. During the 16th century, many men were reluctant to abandon ancestral names, and consequently retained the forenames of their fathers or grandfathers as surnames. For example, William HARRY of Luxulyan, Cornwall, in 1547, was described (in a legal document) as William HARRY alias WATT - Watt being his grandfather's forename.