Today, I’d like to share some strategies and resources for identifying and sorting men of the same name. Depending on the time period and circumstances, some of these suggestions will also work to separate out women of the same name.
We’ll begin with a caveat: Unless you are very, very lucky, it is probable that you will not be able to solve your identification issues in one day. It will also likely take documents found in more than one record collection.
The common thread here is ANALYSIS. A good researcher will need to seek out, sort, compare, accept and reject various records. Be mindful of spelling variations, both in given and surnames!
First, let’s look at record sets that might be available ONLINE.
- Vital Records – Birth, marriage and death records might be an enormous help. What more could a researcher ask for? Well, if, for example, you are researching John Doe, from a large colonial Massachusetts family, you may soon discover that there were five John Does born to James Doe within a ten-year period AND the mothers’ names are not entered in the record. You’ll need to sort out whether there was one James, who kept losing sons, and really wanted a boy named John or if, instead, two or more of the Jameses were father/son, uncle/nephew or cousins.
- Census Records – Census records are a double edged sword, providing both positive and negative evidence. Two or three men named John Doe in the same age range in the 1820 census will mean further digging. Absence from a census doesn’t always mean an elderly person has died either. Following up with the person’s FAN (Friends, Associates, Neighbors) is a necessity.
- Probate Records – A will might answer all your questions. Even an estate administration (sometimes even better in its details than a will) could be a huge genealogical gift. On the other hand, what if John Doe died, no age given, no heirs named and the court appointed administrator’s unfamiliar name is all you have?
- Land Deeds – Land records can sometimes tell us what probate records do not. Let’s say John Doe found in the probate records died intestate by May 1837 with the scenario I just outlined in #3. However, the county deed index includes a listing for the sale of land formerly owned by John Doe, deceased, in October 1837 with his heirs all agreeing to the sale. That is strong evidence of the family members of John Doe who died by May 1837.
- Military Records – Pension files from the American Revolution, War of 1812 and Civil War are excellent sources for identifying men of the same name when used in correlation with other records. If the pension applicant (soldier or widow) included enough family information in their affidavits, you might be able to identify your person of interest from this one source.
- Tax Lists – Tax records are my favorite for determining not only how many men of the same name lived in a given place at the same time, but also how many adult men with that surname lived in the county. Also, by following when names first appear in the tax records, it can often be determined about when the man first purchased land or when a male reached the age (16, 18, 21, depending on the time period and place) where he had to be listed.
- Court Minutes & Court Orders – Often, court records must be read page by page. Even if there is an “index,” in my experience that index is often VERY incomplete. What might you find in this time consuming activity? Maybe lots, maybe little or nothing. It all depends. I have found family lawsuits, land sales, jury lists, and even came across a court order that mentioned by name the son of my deceased subject, who had recently been appointed the estate administrator had ALSO died and the new administrator was to be a son-in-law.
- Google Search – This obviously isn’t a typical “record set.” However, an online search might lead you to records otherwise not found. I have found great information in hard-to-find sources like the old RootsWeb forums, which will come up with a Wayback Machine link when the original forum website is defunct. I’ve also found bloggers writing about a person or family of interest and family history personal websites with useful information.
- Family Histories – If a book is out of copyright, an online search for a name and place might bring up links to new clues, particularly if one or more of the same-named persons moved elsewhere.
- Naming Patterns – Family names might or might not be helpful clues when piecing families together.
- I hesitate to include my last suggestion – just realize that they are ONLY CLUES for further research: Online Family Trees. When sorting out men of the same name, seek out online family trees of each of those men. I’ve sometimes been able to eliminate candidates because someone else has proven (which I verified) that a second or third man of the same name definitely isn’t the man I am seeking.
I will share my quest to figure out if Lawrence Thompson of Mercer & Washington Counties, Kentucky in the 1790s was part of Dave’s family tree and if he was the father of Ephraim Thompson.
I must warn you from the outset, though, that it will be a wild ride with many convoluted turns. So, hold on to your hat and hang on!