Using Associates and Timelines to Prove Identity

When records in several places reveal persons of the same name, how can one determine whether those records were created by one individual or several?[1]

It’s one of the most common problems we face as genealogists. The solution is generally found not by a single, magical record, but by thoughtful, methodical research and analysis. In 1995, authors Marsha Hoffman Rising and Gale Williams Bamman illustrated this fact by presenting the case of Samuel M. Scroggins of Missouri and Tennessee.[2] Scroggins was one of the more elusive subjects of a broader, long-term study: the Ozarks Migration Patterns Project.

That project’s goal was to identify the geographic origins of the first one thousand purchasers of public land from the federal land office at Springfield, Greene County, Missouri (1 June 1835–5 March 1839). Its purpose was to test the generally accepted hypothesis that most settlers of any frontier community shared the same geographic origins as their neighbors and associates. (Spoiler alert: they do.) Ultimately, the study resulted in Rising’s landmark 2005 work, Opening the Ozarks: First Families in Southwest Missouri.[3]

But back to Scroggins. Scroggins’s documented presence in the Ozarks was brief, between March 1833 when he was appointed surveyor at Greene County’s first court session and February 1836 when he and John Gwinn were summoned as witnesses to Missouri v. Thomas Duke. An undocumented local history placed Scroggins in the area “about 1831” with James K. Alsup and Daniel Johnson. Finally, Scroggins’s purchase of 160 acres in Greene County was finalized in October 1838, but was soon assigned to William Deisart [Dysart], who is misleadingly shown in county deeds as the land’s first owner.

In attempting to locate Scroggins’s origins, the authors noted the Tennessee origins of Scroggins’s associates in those few records: Gwinn was from Fentress County in East Tennessee; Dysart was from Bedford County in Middle Tennessee; and Alsup was from Hardeman County in West Tennessee. Johnson may have been from Bedford County, but there was insufficient evidence to establish that fact.

A search for Samuel Scroggins in Tennessee censuses revealed two possibilities: one in Monroe County and one in Fentress County, both in East Tennessee. But how could they determine if one of the men in Tennessee was the man they had identified in southwest Missouri? Rising and Bamman developed a very specific approach to solve the problem:

First, thoroughly exhaust all extant records for the place where the person is known to have lived.

Second, study in depth the records of other locales in which persons of the same name appear on record. (Also note the existence of whatever records, created at the time and place of interest, in which the individual does not appear [negative evidence].)

Third, use the resulting data to construct a chronology of events.

Fourth, formulate and pose as many pertinent questions as possible. Were the individuals creating records at overlapping times? Was it physically possible for one person to generate all the records? Is one likely to have done so? Do associates in one community also appear in the other? Answering each such question, by examining as many records as possible, usually enables one to make that crucial determination.[4]

By following this methodology, Rising and Bamman soon eliminated the man in Monroe County as their subject and confirmed the Samuel Mills Scroggins of Fentress County to be the man who was briefly in the Ozarks before returning to his home in Fentress County. Is such a migration westward before returning east unlikely? The authors conclude that it is not.

Even though nineteenth-century travel was strenuous by comparison to modern transit, our ancestors remained remarkably mobile. Samuel Mills Scroggins is but one of many examples of our restless, bold, and adventurous forebears who did not hesitate to leave home—or return.[5]

As for that four-step research process, I think it might be worth cutting out and pinning up next to my computer.


[1]Marsha Hoffman Rising and Gale Williams Bamman, “Forging Links in a Surveyor’s Chain: Samuel M. Scroggins of Missouri and Tennessee,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 83 (December 1995), 268; PDF, NGSQ Archives ( : 23 October 2018).

[2]Rising and Bamman, “Forging Links in a Surveyor’s Chain” (note 1), 268–276.

[3]Marsha Hoffman Rising, Opening the Ozarks: First Families in Southwest Missouri, 1835–1839, four volumes (Derry, N.H.: American Society of Genealogists, 2005).

[4]Rising and Bamman, “Forging Links in a Surveyor’s Chain” (note 1), 269.

[5]Rising and Bamman, “Forging Links in a Surveyor’s Chain” (note 1), 275.

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