John Smith?

One of the most common errors for new genealogists is falling into the trap of “The Names The Same”. What we mean by that is that because we see someone with the same name, living in the same place, we jump too quickly to assume it is our ancestor (or person of interest). This is one of the good reasons we shouldn’t jump around sporadically in census records, but rather work methodically back, slowly but surely. The goal should be to recreate identities–and a person’s identity is far more than just their name. In my previous post, I listed this concept as one of my 10 key genealogical principles.

A person’s identity is made up of things like:

  • who their spouses and children were
  • who their parents were
  • what they looked like
  • their literacy (or lack thereof)
  • who their neighbors and friends are
  • their military service (or lack thereof)
  • what their birth, marriage and death dates were
  • where (specifically) they lived
  • what their occupation was
  • what their religion was
  • what their economic/financial standing was
Or John Smith?

…and lots of other things. I read a quote once that I love. It said if you always assume there is at least one other person living in the same area with the same name, then you will force yourself to use other criteria to identify that person. If you want to freak yourself out, Google your own name and see how many other people you find with it. Kinda scary.

We all use the census and vital records initially, but I have found that things like tax, land and court records are especially good at helping to discern identity. Everyone knows I believe in using charts in my genealogy, and this  something that can be analyzed very well with charts.  Make a list of the prospects in the first column, using numbers—for example, Jane Johnson #1, Jane Johnson # 2, etc. Then make additional columns where you fill in the distinctive data for that individual: birthdate, marriage date, spouse(s), land, occupation, children, etc.  Pretty soon, you’ll start to see patterns emerge, and you should be able to have a better sense of who was who.

Maps are important during this process–something as simple as seeing where people lived could be enough to help you see it’s not your person of interest. Complicating factors are really common names, people who lived in the same vicinity, were born around the same time and married around the same time. There are lots of examples of these things happening. And two people named Bill could marry women both named Mary. I’ve seen it!

However, the more evidence you gather and scrutinize, the more you will be able to distinguish between individuals. I am doing this “deconflicting” right now on my gggrandfather, John Smith (yes, you read that right). And you would not believe how many black John Smiths, born ca. 1880, lived in the same district of Jacksonville, Florida in the early 20th century. So this has been no simple task.

So, take a look back over your research and ask yourself if you have really done due diligence in this area. Especially if you’re stuck, have you glossed too quickly over a person, and attached him/her to your tree? I like to say if the only reason you believe someone is your ancestor is that they have the same name and are living in the same place, then you have more work to do. I’d love for people to add to my short list above of criteria that helps define identity.

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