Help! my ancestor’s name is John Smith (or how to find relatives with very common names)


Suppose you are on a quest for information about your relative, John Smith.  You then discover that there are an astounding 31,139 John Smiths listed in the 1900 U.S. census!  This might seem like an insurmountable task, but it is manageable with some diligence and creativity.  One of the difficulties genealogists confront when working with family trees is deciphering who exactly their ancestors are in the course of scouring hundreds of records pertaining to individuals of that name.  The most logical step in identifying an individual with a common name is to work backwards from adult life to childhood.  This issue emerges not only when an ancestor has a highly common name, but also when that name is shared by dozens of individuals within the same family.  Below are some strategies for conducting research when there are multiple people with the same name and ensuring that you are attaching the correct individual to his corresponding facts and history.

To properly identify an ancestor with a popular name, it is essential to rely on a variety of resources.  These include online publications and websites, records depositories, archive and libraries.  The first step is to search by your family member’s name as well as all the spelling variations associated with that name.  Ancestors were not always recorded with the surname currently in use by your family so it is important to include all potential name variants.  In addition, be aware of any documents that indicate that your ancestor had a nickname or a title (such as Esq., Dr., or a military title) to limit the possible matches.  When searching for the name, you should simultaneously add a time period and/or a location along with its surrounding areas, as land boundaries have changed over time and migration is likely to have occurred.  Then, to further narrow the results, you should include other names that you know from your relative’s family, such as your ancestor’s wife’s or mother’s maiden names.  Obviously referencing an unusual name, if one exists, is the best strategy.  Adding frequently used genealogical terms to your query, such as “genealogy,” “ancestors,” or “family history” will also be helpful after establishing these parameters.

Once you have used these methods to narrow the results for your ancestor “John Smith,” search for other documents to learn as much as you can about this relative.  You can review deeds or tax records to verify which man owned a specific property at that time or was taxed on certain purchases, such as cattle.  Determining other identifying information, such as the individual’s religion, occupation, military service, probate records and possibly, who his neighbors and business acquaintances were, will provide clues that can differentiate between your ancestor and others with that same name.  You can create a chronological history for the several “John Smiths” after you have narrowed your search to a reasonable number.  By looking at these timelines side by side, you should be able to notice patterns and discrepancies that will be helpful.  In the end, you will find that although locating an ancestor with a popular name is a more time consuming and challenging task, there are a wealth of resources available for this type of research that render the task more manageable and more likely to yield results.

Louisa Kalish

Louisa Kalish is a lawyer and a freelance writer for online legal and general interest publications. She became interested in genealogy during a brief stint in pro bono family law. While not engaged in her writing and legal pursuits, she is an active volunteer in several charitable organizations and heads the parenting organization at her children's school. She resides in New Jersey with her husband and three children.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


Register A New Account

Terms and Conditions Privacy Policy