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Playing name game doesn't have to be painful
11 November 2007
Last month I had a note from a reader who wanted my advise on researching her common
name ancestor, John Brown. Because of my Miller surname, I have had a lot of experience
researching common names. I not only research the name Miller but I also have Johnsons, Smiths
and two branches of Browns in the family.
It’s natural to delay researching these common name ancestors because they tend to be more
complicated and difficult to find. But with a little common sense and caution, even an ancestor
with the name John Brown can be found.
Look at the time and place where the ancestor lived. Make sure you are checking the records
for the years he was living in that place, thus helping to narrow down the possibilities. I once had
to search for John Smith in Wyandotte County, Kansas during the early 1860's. I thought it would
be a long, tough battle finding him. As it turned out, there was only one John Smith living in the
county at that time so it proved to be pretty simple. By the1870's there were nine John Smiths in
Wyandotte County. But by then several other records about him had been created so that I could
single him out from the other eight.
Create a biographical sketch with what you know about the person. Even the simplest facts,
such as a place of birth or occupation, can help differentiate between two people. Other
identifying details that will help to distinguish one individual from others with the same name are
middle name or initial, birth date, race, religion, status in the community, friends, and military
service. Keep the sketch with you when you are researching to refresh your memory of all the
details that will set your ancestor apart from the others.
Identify family members and close associates. Use a wife or a child’s unusual given name to
search for records instead of the man’s name. It will usually be easier to find John Smith’s son,
Harmanus, than to find John. Another strategy is to use the wife’s maiden name if it is less
common than her husband’s. Once the family is located through the less common given name or
maiden name, details about John can be found. Neighbors, in-laws, and business associates can
also be used in this way to track a common named ancestor.
Identify if the person was known by a nickname or a distinguishing term. When there is more
than one man with the same name in a community, special terms are often used to tell them apart.
The terms do not necessarily mean that the men are related. For instance, the use of Sr. and Jr. in
records does not always indicate father and son. During some time periods, they indicate the ages
of the two men, not their relationship. Nicknames which relate to a man’s occupation or physical
characteristics were also used to separate identities. For example, calling a man Red may refer to
the color of his hair.
Today online indexes pose special challenges for genealogists when researching a common name
ancestor. The same research methods used for unusual names cannot be applied to common
names. There will simply be too many results. Most people just quit if they get thousands of hits
when searching for one name.
There are a few strategies that can be used to get around this problem. First, use the advanced
search option rather then the general search. This allows adding criteria such as year of birth and
other information that will narrow down the search and result in fewer hits. Be as specific as
possible using the state, county, and town whenever possible. Second, search specific databases
instead of global searching. This will cut down on the number of results. It will also help you to
stay focused on the time and place where your ancestor lived.
A common mistake made by genealogists is to assume a person’s identity solely on the name. This
type of assumption can lead to connecting a person to the wrong family or claiming someone as
an ancestor who is only a distant cousin. For example, it can never be assumed that all Browns in
a county are related. Obtain the proper evidence connecting one person to another, otherwise you
might spend a lot of time and energy following the wrong family.
As with any research, check to see if someone else has already done the work. Look for published
genealogies and look at online surname forums and message boards.
Almost everyone will need to research a common name for their genealogy research at some
point. With a common sense approach, you don’t have to put it off until next year.
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