Identity is a critical concept to understand in genealogy. Too often we assume that a person with the same name living in the same place must be our ancestor.
That is a mistake.
You’ll hear the phrase “The Names the Same” for this concept. I addressed this topic in 2009 but thought it worthy of repeating.
The Problem with the Name
When researching our ancestors, we have to be meticulous. A name may sound odd or rare today but it could have been very common for the time and place under study.
I documented this in a blog post about my ancestor Rezin Prather. That name sounds uncommon today, but in the 1900s? Turns out, not so rare.
Just like today, names were popularized during different eras. People named their children after prominent individuals and people they admired.
People often named their children after their parents and siblings. This practice is particularly prominent in the African-American community.
Every line in my family repeated names throughout the generations.
When we come across another person with the same name living near our ancestor, I want you to envision a big blinking DANGER sign.
This means you have more work to do to make sure you are proving identity and not matching names.
Ways To Distinguish Between Two People
I have posted before about how assumptions can lead us astray. Nowhere is this more prevalent than assuming someone is our person of interest because of their name.
Learn how to use more than just a name to assert identity. Other criteria include:
–Spouses and children
–Where they lived(which means you have consulted historic maps)
–Landownership and wealth
–Literacy (can they read and/or write?)
–Physical description (may be in a draft document or military pension)
–Military service or lack thereof
–Church membership/Place of burial
Oral History and Prior Research
Here’s a good example of how “the names the same” can lead to inaccurate family information.
We’ve had many reunions in my Prather family, and our history was distributed at each event. When I turned my focus to this branch, I began to verify the history myself.
After researching the original records, I quickly realized that something was quite wrong.
My 2nd great-grandfather’s name was Levi Prather. Below are 1870 census households for two men with that name in Montgomery County, Maryland. Do you see a problem?
Our family history claimed descent from the Levi Prather who was three years old in 1870 instead of the Levi who was a grown and newly married man.
The relatives matched a name instead of proving identity. (This is no slight to my wonderful relatives who did this research;) It’s an easy mistake to make.
It is important that we validate every relationship in histories we receive. We should validate this history using original records.
Never take family information given to us at face value and that includes all the information on those Ancestry trees.
Another Prather Example
There were two women named Ida Bell in the 1920 census in Montgomery County. They were about the same age, both African-American, and were both born and raised in Maryland.
One was married to Zachariah Bell and the other was married to his brother, James Bell.
Additionally, marriage records revealed that Prather was the maiden name for both women! The two women were also cousins.
One can see the possibilities for confusion. Even after these women married they still had the same surname.
In this example, their middle names and where they lived helped to differentiate between the two women.
Zachariah’s wife was the former Ida Virginia Prather, while James’ wife was the former Ida Jane Prather. Zachariah and his wife also later migrated to Washington, D.C.
If you were just a census surfer and name-matcher, you could easily get these women confused.
The Waters Family
My Waters line in Somerset County, Maryland is no easier case. They perpetually named everyone in every generation the same names.
The men were almost all named John, George, Joshua, William, and Samuel. The women were almost all Betsy, Mary, Sarah, Henrietta, Rachel, Laura, and Annie.
This is an absolute nightmare for genealogists. Don’t you wish they could at least throw in an odd name every now and then?
I thought the name Levin might give me a break, but there were ten African-American men named Levin Waters! There were even four African-American couples named William and Laura Waters.
Months of making charts and painstakingly piecing families together finally helped me to distinguish between each family member in this community.
What to Watch Out For
Also, missing marriage records or marriages that occurred outside the home community can cause problems. That twenty-year census “Donut Hole” between 1880 and 1900 is a pitfall all by itself.
We must also remember that the suffix “Jr.” does not always imply that the man is the son of the “Sr.” Historically that convention was used to distinguish between two men of the same name in a community, usually where one is older than the other.
I thought for many years that my ancestor John Wesley Holt, Jr., was the son of the John Wesley Holt, Sr. who lived in the same community. He was not. So watch those assumptions.
I frequently use charts so shown below is a part of the one I used to sort the Levin Waters men (click to enlarge):
I used a similar process when I was sorting through the various Rezin Prathers. The charts don’t have to be anything fancy.
Use a format that allows you to record identifying information as you sort through census, land, marriage, death, probate and other records. You’ll need to analyze the individuals in a wide variety of records.
As you work this process, it often becomes easier to “see” the different men. You might notice that one man was a Civil War soldier when the others weren’t.
Maybe one man owned land when the others didn’t. One man has a headstone at a certain cemetery when others don’t. One man lived in Westover while another lived in Princess Anne.
Did They Move to Another State?
You should always use multiple sources to differentiate one person from the others of the same name. This becomes exceedingly important when the person of interest moves to another area or state.
Use cluster research strategies to discern between people as well. Different people will have different groups of people they associate with.
Genealogy keeps showing me that nothing worthwhile is easy. And every now and then naming and tracking people who migrate to another location still trips me up.
Readers, can you share in the comments stories of same named people you ran across and how you were able to prove their identity? And remember~
Just because the names the same, doesn’t mean the person is.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.