Too Many Johns in the Tree Branches: Sorting Out Same Name/Different People Problems in Genealogical Research

word-cloud-3269304_640If you’ve been doing genealogy/family history for a while and have managed to move back at least two generations, filling in all of the children in each generation, you’ve discovered what I would consider the bane of any dedicated family historian: the repetition of given names leading to way too many folks with the same name. On top of our ancestors’ predisposition to use the same given names in each generation, we also have the likelihood that families who at least at the moment appear to have no connection to our ancestors also occasionally used the same given name. The real joy comes when you are moving back in time and you don’t know where they exactly lived before and you suddenly have way too many choices. How do you go about separating one John Smith from the six (or 36) other John Smiths that crop up when you do a general online search? Let’s explore some good tools to use. There is no guarantee that any of these will answer your question, but we will talk about that possibility as well.

I’ve said this a few dozen times in these blogs and at the risk of repeating myself, I will repeat myself. Always research the whole family in each generation. Be comprehensive in researching all available records and document complete names and dates. Always record conflicting information either as an alternative entry in your genealogy software or in your research plan/journal. That means doing everything you can to identify names and dates for all children and for the new incoming line brought by your female ancestor in the family. Related families moved together and children were often named for siblings, aunts and uncles, and grandparents; on both sides of their parents. The more you know in the line that you must move back in time, the better chance you have at finding a clear record or be able to do a comprehensive assessment that would meet the genealogical proof standard. Be methodical, don’t get in a hurry to collect names. Trust me on this, ALL family historians start out with enough excitement, lack of knowledge, or both, to make lots of mistakes. Your research should always be as good as it can be at the moment, but don’t think it is written in stone. Sources can become available and/or you can learn how to research better and more efficiently and that may change your assessment of who your ancestors were and where they were.

Sit down with the details you have on your ancestor’s family and create a research plan so you can be methodical and keep up with what and where you search (so you don’t repeat yourself). You can call it a to-do list or a research plan and you can develop it in a number of the available genealogy software packages or in MS Word, in OneNote or EverNote, or even on paper with a pen or pencil. If you are dealing with multiple people with the same name, which is the focus of this blog, then your research plan needs to try and identify sources and records that will help you separate the possibles from the not possibles. Some of those would be vital records, probate records, marriage records, homestead applications and land records, newspapers, possibly military records, and church records if you can locate them.

An example might be helpful. Let’s say you have an ancestor named William Smith. You’ve found no evidence of a middle name and you’ve researched his wife whose name is Mary Allen Smith, and all of his children. You also believe another Smith in the same community may be related but you’ve not found definitive proof of that. Take all of this information and create a timeline, trying to narrow down when he, or they, arrived where they lived. Since we cover the Florida panhandle here, let’s say they are in Santa Rosa County from 1850-1900. You want to take the family back beyond 1850. Based on the children in the household in the 1850 census, it appears that William and Mary were not married in Florida. The oldest child is 11 and listed as born in Georgia, followed by one 9 also born in Georgia, one 6 born in Alabama, one 3 born in Florida. That gives you some points on a timeline to focus your research. The family appears to have migrated from Alabama to Florida sometime between 1844 and 1847 (put that on the timeline). They were in Alabama, location unknown, for some period of time between 1841 and 1847 and they were in Georgia, location unknown, from 1841 back to an unknown time, but at least to 1839 (also put these on the timeline). In the 1850 census, William is listed as born in South Carolina and Mary is listed as born in Georgia, so it is likely that he migrated as a single man (or widower depending on his age) and married Mary at or near where he settled in Georgia. With all of this on your timeline, sit down and plan out how you will find the right William and Mary further back in time.


On your timeline note any name variations, conflicting dates, and sources (see blog on timelines). Research naming patterns and make a note on how some of our ancestors decided on names for their children.  Do a little historical research and add some key events in the area where your ancestors lived. Was it possible your male ancestor could have a military record that could have led to a land grant? Researching the unit he was in may help narrow down your search on where he lived. And researching the other men in the regiment may give you men with the same surname as your male ancestor or the same as the maiden name of your female ancestor.  For the Deep South that might be the Seminole Wars.

In looking over all the family you’ve already put together, is there more than one given name that repeats itself? Make a note of them. Is there extended family in the area of your ancestors that may be easier to extend back in time? That may help you narrow down where to look. For instance, say Mary had a brother named Charles that you know about and who was in the same neighborhood in Santa Rosa County in 1850. If might be easier to find him first, then look for your direct ancestors. Use this to refine your research plan and help you sort through the possibilities. The key is comprehensive and methodical research and an organized approach to maintaining your data. Timelines help you visualize across time and research plans keep you organized and not repeating searches. Journals keep your notes together on what you find and what you didn’t find in a search. I use MS OneNote for both plans and journals and Timeline Maker Pro for timelines but there are a lot of options out there. Find the ways that fit how you like to work.

Our hypothetical family had a brief stay in Alabama, not an unusual occurrence for those with ancestors in the Florida panhandle. When these happened between census, especially before vital records were consistently kept in the South, it can seem a daunting task to figure out where they were in those brief years. I have a few of these of my own, so I know it is the brick wall that just keeps on giving. Sometimes, you may have to accept you know they were briefly in a State but you don’t know where or you can approach the problem differently. This can be where history can help you understand your genealogy. Research the migration routes that could have been used by your ancestor and make an educated guess on which one they would have used. That might narrow your counties to research for local records that might name your ancestors. Each county may have slightly different records. Courthouses burned and records were sometimes poorly maintained and are now unreadable. Educate yourself on what is available in any possible counties and then try to find your ancestors. Research a collateral line that may have left more records or may have stayed in Alabama. Again, families often moved together. Finally, use your common sense. It isn’t likely your ancestor was in South Carolina in 1840, Alabama in 1842, back in Georgia in 1843, then the Florida panhandle in 1844. Travel was not all that easy back then, especially with families. Some of these are likely different people with the same name. Most families moved in a consistent manner, on existing trails, with other families from the same general area.

If your research doesn’t provide you with a clearly definitive family back to the next stop in your ancestors’ history, then sit down and draft a narrative analysis arguing for which family you believe, based on the data you have, is the right family. Ground your argument with citations and explanations to help both you and anyone else reading it to understand how you arrived at your conclusion. Make it clear that some new research might mean it will need to change. In areas where older records are scarce, this may be your only option. I use Evidentia3 currently for my analysis.

I have recently begun using a free program to help capture citation information as I research online. I tend to find free programs to be worth what I paid for them but Zotero is proving very helpful both in my personal genealogy and in my book writing. It will work with a number of current browsers to capture citation information. This was one area I completely screwed up in my early research days and I’ve since discovered I am not alone. Capturing good citations isn’t much fun compared to finding ancestors but it is really important and easier with this software.  Check out the book listed in the resources for ways to use this free program in genealogy research.

Until Next Time


One thought on “Too Many Johns in the Tree Branches: Sorting Out Same Name/Different People Problems in Genealogical Research

  1. Pingback: Too Many Johns in the Tree Branches: Sorting Out Same Name/Different People Problems in Genealogical Research – cherishthelady

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