Methods to Sort Men of the Same Name: A Baker’s Dozen

Have you come across two men of the same name in your genealogical research?

I know I have. For example, I am descended from three Joses Bucknams in a row and all lived in Massachusetts in the 1600s.

I am also descended from Thomas Burnham and John Burnham, who lived in a place where there were multiple fathers/sons and cousins who lived nearby.

Lastly, I am descended from two men named John Whipple, who were contemporaries in time, but not related at all!

Exactly how can men of the same name be separated out and correctly identified?

Here are a baker’s dozen of records and methods to figure out who is who. Most of these tips can also be applied to female ancestors. However, because they are much less likely to appear in some records, not all of these suggestions will work.

1. Name variations – Differences in spelling may or may not be significant, e.g. Thompson and Tompson. Watch for possible patterns to determine whether or not spelling matters. The same goes for middle initials or middle names.

2. Naming patterns – Many families use similar given names over and over through several generations. Build out the family tree for each of your same-name persons. If one John Smith, for example, names children John, Mary, Hannah, Samuel and Susannah and the family trees contain those same names for generations before and after, while the second John Smith names children Evan, Theophilus, Diana and David, and those names also appear in generations before and after, it’s probably a good clue as to which man is which.

3. Vital records – Birth records, depending on time and place, may note the given names of both parents, which is a definite plus when sorting out people of the same name. If both men were born in the same town, birth records will place them in the correct parental groups. Further, marriage records will expand the FAN (Friends, Associates, Neighbors) club to include the women’s maiden names.

4. Church membership – Church records are a bit more difficult to access, but membership lists and meeting minutes may provide important details about each man and his family. Some membership lists include not only names, but dates of arrival and departure from the church community and, at times, even include death dates.

4. Occupation – Knowing an ancestor’s occupation might be a sure way to separate same-name people. For example, land records in colonial Massachusetts often include an occupation or economic status after a given name, such as carpenter, farmer, or yeoman. William Johnson, carpenter, isn’t likely to be the same man as William Johnson, blacksmith. Town minutes and county histories are another good way to learn about the ancestor’s occupation or trade. Estate records might also reveal the information. If your research time period is 1850 onward, then the census record will not only tell you that, but will also reveal changes in occupation through the years, if that happened.

5. Literacy – Land records often reveal whether or not an ancestor was literate enough to at least sign his name. While the county clerk transcribed deeds into official books, the clerk would sign the grantor and grantee names in cursive if that person knew how to write. If the buyer or seller couldn’t write, the clerk recorded the name in cursive with the person’s mark in the middle, e.g. Isaac (X) Riddle.

6. Education – Education is closely linked to literacy. However, it is very possible, as we move back through the centuries, that a man or woman might be able to sign their name, perhaps read a Bible passage and solve basic arithmetic problems, but not be well educated. Estate records, again, are a valuable source for information about education. If the inventory includes a number of books, and particularly books in more than one language, the man had received a very good education. County histories that include biographical sketches might mention something like – John Davidson, who wasn’t afforded the chance to attend school, became a successful farmer. . . . As for university attendance, I’ve mostly found that those fortunate enough to attend college in the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s, leave a detailed enough trail, through histories and family stories that they are relatively easy to find.

7. Economic status – Tax records and estate inventories are the best resources to determine how financially well off a man was. For exampled, as I tried to sort out several Lawrence Thompsons who lived in the same counties, I noticed one of them was consistently taxed over multiple years for one white male over 21, and a few horses and cattle. A second Lawrence Thompson was taxed for the same, but also for several hundred acres of land – and he added to his land holdings through the years. Some censuses included questions about the value of personal and real estate. Sadly, sales of enslaved people were recorded with real estate transactions. Therefore, deed records give another indication of a person’s wealth.

8. Land records – Real estate ownership clearly ties into economic status, which is #7. However, deeds can offer many more clues that separate men of the same name. I was able to sort out several men named Miller living in Botetourt County, Virginia at the close of the American Revolution, by the use of given names and location of land that they owned to determine likely Anglo men named Miller and German Millers. I was further able to separate two Jacob Millers living there to figure out which man’s son married Catherine Whitmer. Both Jacobs were German, but one of them lived a very long way from the Whitmers, while the second man lived close by. It was, indeed, the second Jacob Miller who was the father of Martin Miller. Witnesses are part of the buyer and seller FAN clubs, the same with chain carriers, if they happened to be named in a deed.

9. Probate records – While wills are wonderful when the decedent named wife and all children, intestate records can be just as, or even more valuable, as the records often name all the heirs, plus the portion of the estate inherited. When land is involved, there is a legal description of the property. That allows us to follow the sale of land, knowing to which family our person of the same name belonged. A second invaluable record is the estate sale inventory if it is recorded in the court minutes. Again, FAN club members are identified, as relatives and neighbors who live fairly close to one another will be making purchases.

10. Court minutes – I love reading court minutes, as they may tell me important information about a person or family. I have to include a BEWARE caveat here – I have, MANY times, come across sets of court minutes and court orders which have an index BUT THE INDEX IS NOT COMPLETE. Court records may explain relationships not explained elsewhere and might enable you to separate men of the same name. Lawsuits, complaints over animals, estate administrations and taxpayers might all be mentioned in court records. FAN club members are readily identified in this record set/

11. Social/fraternal/ethnic organizations – These groups became much more prominent in the 19th century. While it may take some digging to determine whether an ancestor belonged to a membership group, that membership may help you to determine whether the ancestor is yours.

12. City directories – These directories became common in the late 1800s and publication exploded by the beginning of the 20th century. First, and important to know, is that inclusion in a city directory and early telephone books was not voluntary – you were included whether or not you wanted to be. Later in the 20th century, there was an option to have a telephone number unlisted and not published in the local phone book. Directories can indicate about when a person or family arrived in a town, if they moved from year to year and identify people of the same name in alphabetical order. I used Passaic, New Jersey city directories to sort out which man was my great grandfather, Stephen Kucharik after he took on the alias of Stephen Sabo.

13. FAN Club – I’ve mentioned the FAN (Friends, Associates, Neighbors) Club several times in this post. However, it really deserves its own listing as #13 in this baker’s dozen. Sometimes, FAN clubs are the only way to definitively sort out people of the same name. One or two records might not answer the question of who is who. You need to build a database (I use an Excel spreadsheet) for all the pieces of documentation that can be found about your problem men or women. FAN club evidence can be found in every one of the previous twelve items in this list. Even if your two same-name persons are related, identifying all of their individual FAN club members can eventually help you make a definitive identification of who is who.

In conclusion, sorting out people of the same name might be quick and easy, but it also might be lengthy and complicated. However, by using the suggestions in this baker’s dozen, your chances of success are greatly increased.



One thought on “Methods to Sort Men of the Same Name: A Baker’s Dozen”

  1. Excellent methodology post, much appreciated as my hubby’s family tree has multiple men with same name in successive generations, not to mention first cousins with same name. How inconsiderate of our ancestors not to take our research into account!

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