Find the Right Tree in the Forest

Individuals are unique. Names are not. When searching for your ancestors on the Internet, you'll quickly find that there are numerous people with the same name. Even unusual names may not be as uncommon as you think. Dempsey and Kinchen Owens may sound like unusual names, but there were actually several men sporting those monikers living in mid-nineteenth-century North Carolina!

One popular method for locating ancestors with common surnames such as Smith or Powell is to search for other less common names from your ancestor's family. If your John Smith has a son named Elias, try searching for Elias Smith. Also look for sisters who married men with more unusual names.

To avoid the pitfall of merging two people with the same name into one, certified genealogist Marsha Hoffman Rising, author of The Family Tree Problem Solver, always assumes that two people of the same name lived in the same community. This reminds you not to attach a piece of data to a specific individual until you're sure that you have the right person. Search for all available records, and use them to identify the distinguishing characteristics of your ancestor. Two men with the same name will have different wives, different children, and perhaps a different occupation. Most importantly, they won't usually occupy the same piece of property, so be sure to include land and property records in your search.

It's not unusual to find two men of the same name living in the same community identified as Sr. and Jr. in local records, causing many researchers to mistakenly connect them as father and son. In reality, they could have a different family relationship, such as uncle and nephew, or even no relationship at all — with “junior” and “senior” used solely to distinguish between an elder and a younger man with the same name. These and other relationship terms such as “aunt” and “cousin” were often used very loosely in earlier times — and still are, even today. The lesson? It's important not to jump to hasty conclusions. Take time to research multiple sources of information for each individual and event in your family tree so you can be sure you have the correct individual identified as your ancestor.

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