An Ancestor with an Alias

When I learned that George Hiram Thoma of Garnavillo, Clayton County, Iowa used an alias as a young man, it took me by surprise. He was born to Fred and Matilda (Hammond) Thoma in 1880,1 and the state census indicates that he remained in his home county in northeastern Iowa at least until 1895.2 At some point thereafter, according to family lore, George left home and bicycled across Iowa. Whether he went by bicycle or not, it was said that his move may have been spurred on by his poor relationship with his father.3


George Hiram Thoma, seated left, with an unidentified young man, ca. 1900; digital image 2013, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.

Records place George across the state in northwestern Iowa on 23 March 1902, at which time, using the name George A. Neilson, he married Anna Leota Fenton in Ashton, Osceola County, Iowa.4 This was no trick of penmanship or recorder’s error; three affidavits, written by George, his mother, and his younger brother, were attached to the marriage document decades later, each attesting to the fact that George A. Neilson and George Hiram Thoma were one and the same person.5 It is worth noting that George still named his correct place of birth and even the correct names of his parents on the original marriage document, with the exception, of course, of assigning the Neilson surname to them as well.6 Evidently, he was not prepared or had no reason to invent an elaborate backstory regarding his origins.

None of the affidavits, however, explained why George had married under an assumed name.7 One has to wonder whether his wife even knew what she was getting into! Prior to his marriage, I suspect that he might be found in the 1900 U.S. census as George Thoma, a clerk in Belden, Cedar County, Nebraska. Notably, he boarded with a family by the name of Nelson, and a Nielsen also resided in the household.8 Although this may or may not be the correct George Thoma, we do know that within weeks of his marriage, he moved to Center, Knox County, Nebraska, where he was an employee of the Edwards and Bradford Lumber Company.9

Within a few years of his marriage, George relocated with his family to Sioux City, Woodbury County, Iowa. There, his daughter’s birth was recorded with the surname Neilson,10 and according to the city directories, George continued to use his assumed name at least until 1909.11 I have been unable to locate the family in the 1910 U.S. census – they had likely left Sioux City by that time to return to Nebraska, where they moved from place to place for the next decade. However, they had certainly reverted to the use of the Thoma surname no later than World War I.12

Was this alias purely symbolic, in order to emphasize George’s separation from his father, or, perhaps, the ties that he forged with another family? Or was it part of an effort to hide, whether from his father, from love, or from the law? This is one family mystery that I would love to solve!

1 “Iowa, Births and Christenings, 1830-1950,” index, FamilySearch ( : accessed 6 Jan 2014), George Hiram Thoma, 29 September 1880.
2 1895 Iowa State Census, Garnavillo, Clayton County, Iowa, Gorge H. Thoma [George H. Thoma]; database, ( : accessed 6 January 2014), citing State Historical Society of Iowa.
Fern (Thoma) Adam, conversation with Brian Adam, August 1984; notes in author’s files. The late Mrs. Adam was the daughter of George Hiram Thoma and stated that George’s father was abusive when he drank.
4 Osceola County, Iowa, marriage of George A. Neilson and Leota Fenton, 23 March 1902; Recorder’s Office, Sibley.
5 Osceola County, Iowa, marriage of George A. Neilson and Leota Fenton, 23 March 1902; affidavits of Mrs. Mathilde Thoma and Leonard C. Thoma; Recorder’s Office, Sibley.
6 Osceola County, Iowa, marriage of George A. Neilson and Leota Fenton, 23 March 1902.
7 Osceola County, Iowa, marriage of George A. Neilson and Leota Fenton, 23 March 1902; affidavits of Mrs. Mathilde Thoma and Leonard C. Thoma.
8 1900 U.S. census, Cedar County, Nebraska, population schedule, Belden, Enumeration District (ED) 40, sheet 2, p. 81 (stamped), dwelling 35, family 37, George Thoma; digital image, ( : accessed 6 January 2014), citing National Archives microfilm T623, roll 919.
9 “News of Osceola County,” Sibley (Iowa) Gazette, 27 March 1902, p. 8, col. 1.
10 Woodbury County, Iowa, “Register of Births, 1907,” entry for Fern Lavaun Neilson, 30 September 1907; Recorder’s Office, Sioux City.
11 “U.S, City Directories, 1821-1989,” database, ( : accessed 6 January 2014), entry for George A. Neilson; citing “Polk’s Sioux City Directory, 1909 (R.L. Polk & Co., 1908),” 411.
12 “World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918,” digital images, ( : accessed 6 January 2014), card for George Hiram Thoma, no. 501, Local Board Burt County, State of Nebraska; citing World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918, National Archives microfilm publication M1509; imaged from Family History Library film roll 1,684,926.

15 thoughts on “An Ancestor with an Alias

  1. Dave Adam

    I mailed a copy to my aunt Betty in Marshalltown to hear her reaction. I asked her if she knew about this and she didn’t. It will be interesting to she what she says.She is the youngest daughter and at 95 is still sharp just like my Mom was. Thanks for the info…Very interesting. Dave

    1. Melanie Frick Post author

      Thanks, Uncle David! I’m beginning to think that none of the girls ever knew about it. Fenton may have. I hope Betty enjoys this. I remember meeting her about ten years ago and she had a great sense of humor like your mom, too!

  2. Margaret R. Fortier

    Hi Melanie,
    I have a similar situation researching a collateral line where the subject is listed as “William Welch alias Kenney” on his marriage record in Boston. Their children are in the relevant censuses as Kenneys and I can find William’s parents and the birth records of his siblings but not his birth record. It also appears he fudged a few other facts. I, too, want to know why he used an alias. I plan to check the court records to see if he actually changed his name.

    1. Melanie Frick Post author

      Hi Margaret, That is interesting, especially since you haven’t found his birth record among those of his siblings. I wonder if it could be a case of an adoption or NPE? It also reminds me of the situation in which one of my French Canadian Adam ancestors was said to have used the surname Pineau as well – I later found that it was the surname of his stepfather. Hope your “William Welch alias Kennedy” left a paper trail in the court! Thanks for your comment!

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