The bare essentials that a genealogist must know before starting a research project are name, place, and time period. While those basics may be enough to start searching, they are rarely enough to be able to separate relevant from irrelevant records or to allow genealogists to make sense of the findings. In general, the more a researcher knows about a person under study, the greater the prospect for success. When trying to link people to an earlier generation or another place of residence, researchers should pay close attention to their subjects’ identifiers.
What is an identifier? It could be anything that helps distinguish a person from others with the same name—things such as occupations, titles, physical characteristics, social standing, military service, religion, land ownership, and associates.
Yes, the people linked to a subject can serve as identifiers. Knowing a person’s spouse, children, in-laws, neighbors, business partners, witnesses, and even adversaries helps researchers recognize relevant records, analyze information, and identify and link pieces of evidence.
The task of separating evidence for same-named individuals is sometimes referred to as “teasing” people apart. Say, for example, several men with the same name lived in the same county during the same time period. Researchers must have a method of aligning each record with the appropriate man. Deeds could be classified according to spouses’ names, property locations, and residences. Similarly, wills, administrations, and cemetery records could be identified based on known associates and family members. The stronger the collection of identifiers, the better a researcher is able to recognize relevant evidence.
Identifiers are important when research involves a person or family who moved from place to place—especially if the migrating person or family had a common name. Details that set the subject apart can help researchers zero in on potentially relevant records even when no link to a geographic location was previously known. The identifiers act as flags, drawing genealogists’ eyes for a closer look.
National Genealogical Society Quarterly author Nickola Beatty Lagoudakis encountered the problem of common names during her research on James Johnson of Virginia. Her 2013 article, “Overcoming Common-Name Barriers to Identify Parents: James Johnson of Amelia, Essex, Lunenburg, and Pittsylvania Counties, Virginia,”  describes how James’s unique characteristics helped link him to records in multiple Virginia counties and eventually led to information about his and his wife’s ancestors.
Lagoudakis’s collection of identifiers included the names of James’s associates as well as information about where James lived. A sometimes-used title of “Major” helped the author focus on tax records related to the man of interest.
At the time of his death, James Johnson was a resident of Pittsylvania County, Virginia, having moved there from Lunenburg County, Virginia. Based on her knowledge that James’s wife was named Letty or Lettice, Lagoudakis turned her attention to an Essex County, Virginia, deed involving a James Johnson and wife Lettice. At the outset, the author was uncertain of its relevance, but she was intrigued by the couple’s given names, which matched those of her research focus.
The Essex County deed states that James’s father was Richard Johnson. Although still uncertain that James of Essex County was the same man who later lived in Lunenburg and Pittsylvania counties, Lagoudakis expanded her search and explored records about Richard Johnson. Her work led to the discovery that Richard’s first wife, mother of his son James, was Elizabeth Fullerton.
The author’s research subject, James Johnson, had a son and grandsons whose middle names were Fullington and Fullerton—a detail that helped the author see the potential significance of Elizabeth’s maiden name. Encouraged by the possible connection, Lagoudakis continued pursuing records related to this Essex County family and uncovered evidence extending James’s lineage for several generations.
When researching any person or family, knowing name, place, and time is rarely enough. Those fundamental details serve as a starting point, but it is essential that researchers make note of unique characteristics—identifiers that set the subjects apart and make them more recognizable in the records. Being armed with additional details about the focus person or family opens the door to more effective research and analysis—and ultimately to stronger conclusions. Nickola Beatty Lagoudakis’s article is a valuable example of the importance of using identifiers in genealogical research.
 Nickola Beatty Lagoudakis, “Overcoming Common-Name Barriers to Identify Parents: James Johnson of Amelia, Essex, Lunenburg, and Pittsylvania Counties, Virginia,” National Genealogical Society Quarter 101 (2013): 165–73; PDF, NGS Quarterly Archives (http://www.ngsgenealogy.org/cs/ngsq_archives : accessed 11 May 2017).