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Researching Common Names

When I first began researching I discovered I had the Johnson name in my heritage. After I got over being terrified of researching such a common name, I got down to the research. It has been hard, but it has also been a rewarding experience. I have learn

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Erin Rigby
Word Count: 467 (approx.)
Labels: Census 
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When I first began researching I discovered I had the Johnson name in my heritage. After I got over being terrified of researching such a common name, I got down to the research. It has been hard, but it has also been a rewarding experience. I have learned much about effective research from working on my Johnson line. We will all encounter a family that has a common name. The difficulty of researching common names is deciding who belongs to what family, so here are some tips on how to go about doing so.

An easy, yet time-consuming way to begin piecing families together is by extracting every person in your locality with the last name you are looking for. Simply write down each person with the last name you are looking for in your locality in each census year. Once you have done that, you should sit down with all your census information and other sources and piece families together.. You may not have irrefutable evidence that any two people are related, but you will have another piece of indirect evidence.

Extracting the census can be especially helpful when trying to put together families that lived previous to 1850. Since each census before 1850 only lists the name of the head of household, it is difficult to find the children of that person if they moved out of the house before 1850. If you have a list of each person with your surname in that locality, you have a ready-made database of potential children. You will then need to use that information, other sources, and common sense to link names together.

You also can piece together families with tax records. Direct relationships are not shown in tax records but are implied through how land gets transferred from person to person. This works with other records as well. Birth, death and marriage certificates, land, probate and other records can give vital clues.

Many people use naming patterns as a way to link families together. Naming patterns can help, but don't rely on them to always lead you in the right direction. If your family uses common first names like John, Henry or William, patterns may not be very helpful. Even with unique names, do not absolutely trust naming patterns.

A common first name coupled with a common surname is especially hard to deal with. You cannot assume the first Henry Johnson with wife Sarah is your Henry and Sarah Johnson. It is best when dealing with very common names to rely on birth dates, spouses, children and location as indicators. If those match up, you have found the person you are looking for. Common names don't have to be terrifying or impossible to research. With time and creativity, research problems concerning common names can be the most rewarding research you will do.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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