How can I distinguish my ancestor from others of the same name?

Naming patterns can be a blessing and a curse for researchers. On the one hand they can provide clues, helping to connect individuals to families, and on the other hand can be confounding when trying to single out a single ancestor from dozens more with the same name, especially those found in the same time period and in the same general location.

The convention of naming children after parents, grandparents, and siblings can result a dozen or more children of the same name in space of a generation. And that is to say nothing of that same pattern being repeated in many parts of the world people, compounded by common given names and surnames.

So what is a researcher to do?

Among the first principles in genealogy research is to work from the know to the unknown and to verify what you find. That said, the following suggestions may help.

  1. Use what you know to distinguish one family from another. Chances are not all children with the same name were born in the same year, and not all have siblings, parents or wives with exactly the same name or birth year.

  2. Combine names as keywords in your search. Again using what is known combine the names of parents and one or more siblings, within a particular time period and location.

  3. Capitalize on unique names. If one member of the family has a more unique name than the others, a search for that unique name can help, keeping in mind that unique names are easily misspelled or misinterpreted, so it may be necessary to also include other known names or information.

  4. Use other distinguishing characteristics. Combining names with other keywords such as occupation, birth place or military service. While many brothers and cousins may have the same name, they may not all be farmers living in the same town or county.

  5. Compare and verify what you have found with other records and information. Typically, you want three to four sources that support one another.

No matter how much in common two persons of the same name may be, each person is unique and can only be in one place at one time: at some point there will be the one key that distinguishes one from another.

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