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How to Methodically Research Common Name Ancestors

Handwritten name with the title research ancestors with common names

Nothing challenges a genealogist more than having to research ancestors with common names or the same name as others in a community. However, there is a path forward, if you’re up for the task

Common name ancestors differ depending on the locality you’re researching. I thought Effingham Townley would be a unique name, but in New Jersey in the early 1880s, that name spread far and wide.

Common surnames include Horowitz, Smith, Long, Johnson, Andersson, Garcia, Kelly, Kowalski, Schneider, and so on. And that’s just the surname.

When you add the first name of Lukas, Mary, Sergei, Brigetta, Pierre, Yassin, David, and Sarah, you are really trying the patience of a family historian.

If you’re willing to be methodological and patient, you can puzzle out those pesky ancestors sharing the same or common names.

Did I lose you at methodological or patient?

VIDEO: How to research common name ancestors in genealogy

Watch this video on YouTube.

Simple Steps for Researching Common Name Ancestors

Although the steps are simple, the process to research your common name ancestor will take time. Just be sure to leave some hair on your head when you’re done!

1. Create an Ancestor Fact Sheet

A name, a birth date, and a birthplace are not enough to distinguish one Charles Gordon from the next.

Take time to build a reference fact sheet for your ancestors. You can use genealogy software to keep track of your facts or USE THIS WORKSHEET.

Think like a detective and piece together the who, what, when, and where for your ancestor.

“The more ways you can identify your ancestor, the better you’ll be able to tell him apart from the other people with the same name.” Amy Johnson Crow

2. Reprove the Research for Your Common Name Ancestor

Through the decades of doing genealogy research, I’ve discovered that you have to reexamine your supporting documents repeatedly.

Just because I thought I had the correct source 5 or 10 years ago, doesn’t mean I have the right records.

Reprove the facts you have gathered for your “Charles Gordon” by reviewing each source as if for the first time.

  1. What records do you have?

  2. What do the records actually say?

  3. Do you have the correct records?

  4. What doesn’t make sense?

Sometimes when we reevaluate the records we have gathered we suddenly spot errors. Perhaps we have confused the B.S. Smith who married Eliza Gordon in Ohio with the one who married Eliza Gordon in Alabama.

If you’re so lucky, you don’t have to proceed further. If not, remember to patiently proceed through the next steps.

3. What Records Are You Missing in Your Genealogy Research?

Often when we do genealogy research, we don’t examine all the available resources. Typically we do this due to limited time and money. Or, we do this because we didn’t know to look.

In a past video, Elissa Scalise Powell, Co-Director of Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh (GRIP), says that “Hope is not a Research Plan.” (To watch that video click here.)

Let’s not hope we sort our ancestors out, let’s be methodical and explore the records we might be missing. Here’s a shortlist to explore. (If you have other suggestions, let me know in the comments section.)

  1. Vital Records

  2. Migration Records

  3. Military Records

  4. Land Transactions

  5. Religious Records

  6. Wills & Estates records

  7. Court records

  8. Tax records

  9. School records

After exhausting these common records for your common name ancestors, think outside of the box. Explore coroner’s reports, correspondence, business, criminal reports, business associations records, and asylum records, to name a few.

If you’re uncertain about discovering which easy records you’re missing, check out this blog post with a video tutorial.

If you need help finding record availability for the location, watch this video about exploring the FamilySearch Wiki.

4. Construct Your Ancestor’s Community

After researching the records directly associated with an ancestor with a common name, sometimes you’re still stuck. When that happens, you need to venture into advanced genealogy territory and reconstruction of your ancestor’s community.

Who makes up your ancestor’s community?

  1. Extended Family (nieces/nephews, aunts/uncles, cousins, in-laws, and beyond)

  2. Neighbors

  3. Friends

  4. Business Associates

  5. Military Unit Members

  6. Social Groups

Create a list of community members by making note of:

  1. Who did your ancestors buy land from?

  2. Who are the godparents of his children?

  3. Who lives nearby according to a plat map or a census record?

  4. Who did they serve with?

  5. Who are they worshiping with?

  6. Who are they in business with?

  7. What names appear in newspaper social columns with their name?

  8. Who is suing them in court?

Once you know who is in your ancestor’s community, fully research that individual. Go so far as to build the associate’s family tree.

You might feel like you’re going on a wild goose chase, but you’re on a methodical genealogy mission.

However, don’t build the family trees of potential non-relatives in your genealogy software programs or paper files. Instead, build their tree and attach relevant records using FamilySearch.

Screenshot of person profile page on FamilySearch

Albert Noethlick is part of Joseph Geissler’s Community (and might have witnessed Joseph’s naturalization records). He isn’t a relative, but my abandoned research is available on FamilySearch.

By building the family tree of your ancestor’s community on FamilySearch, you can abandon your research on these individuals at any time. Additionally, you help another researcher due to your valiant efforts.

Research Additional Community Members for Your Common Name Ancestor

Sometimes, you have to dive even deeper while researching your ancestor with similar names to those in your community. To crack through brick walls, you might have to:

Click the strategies above for more details about these advanced genealogy research methodology techniques.

↪️ Are you looking for more genealogy resources?

Grab your copy of this FREE Genealogy Research Guide:

Fingers typing on keyboard with title 10 Online Genealogy Resources You Have to Try

5. Use Analytical Tools to Process Your Common Name Ancestor’s Facts

When researching ancestors with the same name as others in their community, sometimes a pedigree chart or ancestral fact sheet is not enough.

My three favorite analytical tools for genealogy are clue webs, timelines, and maps.

Genealogy Clue Webs  and Mind Maps for the Gordons

A genealogy clue web begins simply and expands to include complex details. What this video on how to create a clue web.

Screenshot of timeline feature available with RootsMagic

This timeline tool is available from RootsMagic. To learn more about timelines, click here.

Screenshot of FamilySearch Map Ancestors events feature.

Learn more strategies for researching your ancestors, common name or not

Check out these blog posts and videos for further research tips and tricks.

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