Techniques for Researching Common-Name Ancestors

We often struggle with solving problems and making connections as we research our ancestors with common surnames—for example, the Johnsons, Smiths, and Joneses in our family trees. Our struggles multiply when these men and women also have common forenames. The primary challenge we face when researching these individuals is telling them apart from others with the same names. Unlike some researchers who face a lack of records, we are sometimes faced with the opposite problem—too many possibilities and too many records that pertain to people who are difficult to tell apart.

Two recent National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ) case studies teach strategies that are useful for making connections and solving problems within families that have common names. Helpful techniques include focusing on unique identifiers, paying close attention to geography, concentrating on uncommon forenames, and using the process of elimination.

In “Overcoming Common-Name Barriers to Identify Parents: James Johnson of Amelia, Essex, Lunenburg, and Pittsylvania Counties, Virginia,” published in September 2013, author Nickola Beatty Lagoudakis identifies the parents of James Johnson, a Revolutionary War veteran and civil servant who lived in several counties in Virginia. Harold Henderson’s March 2015 article, “Crossing the Continent with Common Names: Indiana Natives John and Elizabeth (Smith) Smith,” focuses on determining the identities of Ina (Smith) Burdock’s parents.

Unique Identifiers
We should gather as many details as possible about our research subjects—such as occupations, land ownership, names of relatives and associates, and where they lived during various time periods—to help establish unique identifiers. Lagoudakis discovered that her research subject, James Johnson, was a major during the American Revolution. The use of James’s military rank in tax records helped distinguish him from same-named men who also paid taxes in Pittsylvania County, and helped connect him to his wife, Letty. The profile Lagoudakis built about her research subject was key to helping distinguish him from same-named individuals, and contributed to her success in identifying his parents.

Attention to Geography
The research subjects of both NGSQ articles—James Johnson, and John and Elizabeth (Smith) Smith—didn’t remain in one geographic area. They moved often, and so did their associates. Henderson established that his research subject John Smith, born in Indiana, was the son of North Carolina-born parents. In 1870, John and Elizabeth Smith’s Iowa household was adjacent to an Indiana-born Smith couple—Ale and Mary. Ten years earlier, Ale and Mary Smith were enumerated in Indiana, two dwellings down from Nancy Smith, a North Carolina native. Additional records support that Nancy was John’s mother, but the initial connection between John and Nancy was made through attention to geography. We may not all have common-name ancestors that moved as much as the Smiths did, but in instances such as these, attention to geography can provide us with evidence needed to establish additional connections.

The authors of these NGSQ case studies focused on relatives of their research subjects who had distinctive first and middle names. Henderson discovered that Ina “Iowa” (Smith) Burdick had a brother Temple Smith. In 1850, two Temple Smiths, of age to be Elizabeth’s father and brother, lived with eighteen-year-old Elizabeth Smith, who was of age to be Ina’s mother. The elder Temple Smith’s 1885 will names several children, including a son Benjamin and daughters Elizabeth Smith and Priscilla Jane Fetters. When Benjamin and Priscilla died, their obituaries identified Elizabeth Smith, wife of John Smith of Bonner Springs, Kansas, as their sister. The uncommon forename of John and Elizabeth’s son Temple initially suggested the connection to the other Temple Smith in Indiana, and additional evidence helped prove that connection.

Distinctive forenames within James Johnson’s family support connections to previous generations. In her case study, Lagoudakis shows that a number of James Johnson’s relatives had either the first or middle name Fullington or its variant Fullerton, and evidence points to Fullerton as James’s mother’s maiden name.

Process of Elimination
When we encounter too many candidates with the same name, and have trouble pinpointing the person we are seeking, the process of elimination can help. Eliminating possibilities relies on taking into consideration some of the previously discussed details such as unique identifiers and geography. Henderson’s research uncovered five John Smiths who lived in Wayne and Randolph counties in Indiana in 1850. All were candidates to be the father of Ida (Smith) Burdick based on age. However, only one had parents who were born in North Carolina. That John Smith was also the one who lived closest to Washington Township in Randolph County, where Elizabeth lived. Henderson was able to eliminate four of five John Smiths by considering unique identifiers and geography.

Studying families with common names requires careful attention to detail. What strategies have you used to make connections between generations or to identify individuals in your own common-name families?

Click here and log in to read Henderson’s article, and click here to read Lagoudakis’s article.

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