Finding Ancestors with Common Names

by Charles S. Mason, Jr. | Jul 2, 2009

Charles S. Mason, Jr.

Common names present a problem for every genealogical researcher, regardless of their level of experience. For researchers with less experience it can seem like an almost impossible task, but it need not be. The most important step to find an ancestor with a common name is to work backwards from their later life to their childhood. Determine everything you can find about the person, including their family, friends, neighbors, and with whom they conducted business. You will also need to determine their religion, occupation, military service, if they owned land, and if they left a will.

As you examine records about someone with you ancestor's common name, it will help to know whom their spouse and children were. William James Mason and his wife, Sarah, lived in Newark and Belleville Township, Essex County, New Jersey. From censuses and other records it was determined that they moved back and forth between the two locations. They were married in 1845 and their youngest known child was born in August 1863. From census records, two other children were found.

It was very likely that other children would have been born to this couple during this eighteen-year time span. Perhaps there were children who died young and were not enumerated on the censuses. A check of vital records for Belleville Township was simple for William was the only William Mason living in the township. Newark presented more of a challenge. The vital records for Newark between 1848 and 1863 included six or seven men with the name William Mason. This presented a challenge to be able to determine which children might be William's children.

None of the entries for William Mason included either a middle name or initial, so none of the entries could be eliminated using the name. Often in early vital records most of the children's names were not included in the entries, only whether the child was a male or female. Only a couple of entries included a mother's name and in all the entries the name listed was Mary and my ancestor's wife was Sarah.

My ancestor was listed as a painter in the Federal Census and some other records I found related to him. The vital records I was searching also included the occupation of the fathers. With that information I was able to determine which entries were the children of my ancestor. William and Sarah did have three other children and all three of them died young. Once I had a birth record for the three children, I was able to search other records to find when the children died and where they were buried.

Many times records will include at least some of an ancestor's family members. Spouses, children, parents, grandparents and other family members' names may assist in determining which records may belong to your ancestor. For example a will may include at least some of the children's names. If you find a will that names children that were not names that belonged to your ancestor's children, then that will could not have created by your ancestor.

An ancestor's religion may also assist in determining which person with a common name is your ancestor. Although people did change religions, this was not as common as it is today. It was not as likely that our 18th or 19th century Protestant ancestors would convert to Catholicism or Judaism or vice versa. If an ancestor moved from one place to another and there was not a church of their denomination in the new location, they were going to look for a church that had similar religious beliefs and practices.

If you find two or more people with the same name, living in a city or county it will be helpful to know who their neighbors were. Census records may assist in determining whom they lived near. Deeds may also record an ancestor's neighbors in the description of the property they purchased. The description normally included the names of the people who own the property adjoining the land being purchased. With this information you should be able to determine which person is your ancestor.

If you find someone with your ancestor's name creating records in two different places at the same time, it cannot be the same person. You will need to determine which records were your ancestor's. The witnesses to those records may give you the answer you are seeking. An ancestor's neighbors may have been witnesses to documents for your ancestor. They may have witnessed your ancestor signing deeds, wills and other legal documents. Your ancestor may have done the same thing for his neighbors. Your ancestor cannot be in two places at once. Check witnesses on the documents to determine which ones may belong to your ancestor or his neighbor.

An ancestor's signature may also assist in determining which document your ancestor may have signed. You should search for a document that you know your ancestor signed and use that signature to compare the signatures on other documents. Remember that you need to find original documents with your ancestor's signature. Some records like wills or deeds copied into will or deed books do not contain original signatures. In many places the original will and other estate papers were kept in separate probate files, in addition to copying the will into the will book. The probate files are often still at the county courthouse. Family members may have copies of the original deed that was copied into a deed book. The signatures found in these types of records were made by the clerk that recorded the original record in the book.

Ancestors with common names can be difficult to research. It is important that you carefully examine every record that may belong to them. The more you know about all aspects of your ancestor's life, the easier it will be to differentiate between two or more people with a common name. In some cases you may need to do additional research before you can be sure that a record belongs to your ancestor. Sometimes you may need to go back and reevaluate records based on new information you have found on your ancestor. Although it may be difficult and time communing research, it is not impossible to determine whom your ancestors were.

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