Q. My third-great-grandfather (1833-1897) changed the spelling of his surname from Kyes to Keyes. It doesn’t appear that anyone else in his family did the same. Should I look for a legal name change document?
A. Such spelling changes—deliberate or accidental—were common in the 1800s, when the spelling of names was much less consistent than today. (In my own family, lore has it that an ancestor added an e to a surname to make it Stowe, simply because she thought it looked fancier that way.) Even today in most states, however, you can legally change your name for any reason simply by using the new name, without any paperwork.
A court order may be required for institutions such as banks and government bodies to accept the change, and much paperwork would be generated in updating driver’s licenses, Social Security records and the like. Back in the 1800s, with much less such bureaucracy, it’s likely your ancestor simply started spelling his name differently without any paperwork. If there was a formal name change petition, the records would be found in state court.
From the September 2015 Family Tree Magazine