This is a problem that is all too common when you have an ancestor with a common name. Unless you have extra information that might help you to pinpoint your ancestor out of a long list of possibilities, this can be really infuriating. One of those ‘John Smith’s is your great-grandfather, but you have no way of knowing which one he is! The problem is even more complicated if you have an ancestor with a name that can be easily shortened or changed (think how many variations of Elizabeth there are: Betty, Betsy, Lizzie, Liz, Eliza….)
It is not always possible to find out which, of all the many possibilities, is your ancestor. However, there are some strategies you can try which may lead you to the right one. The following actions are what I usually try when attempting to break through this particular brick wall:
- Research other known family members. Do you know of any brothers or sisters who might have a more traceable name (for example, Nicholas is a lot less common than John)? Are there any people named as witness on your ancestor’s marriage who might be siblings, parents, uncles or cousins? Are there any visitors or boarders in the census household who could be relatives (they are not always described as a relative, even though they often should be). A careful perusal of all documents you have for your ancestor may given you some relatives you can trace, which might at least give you an idea of the area your ancestor came from.
- Eliminate as many as possible. Sometimes, if there are just a few possible candidates for your ancestor, you may be able to shortlist them by a process of elimination. For example, let’s say you have found three possible baptisms for your ancestor, James Brown, all born in Warwick in 1812, who might all be your ancestor. You have three sets of parents. Note down their names, and find the names of all of their children. Do you see any naming patterns? Might your ancestor have named some or all of his children after his parents and/or siblings? Check burial records to see if you can ‘kill off’ one of the candidates – burial records for children usually give the parents’ names, so this is often a way of eliminating baptisms from your searches. Can you find any marriages for any of them, that you can definitely say is not your ancestor (be careful though – it could be a previous marriage that you did not already know about).
- Do Further Research on the Shortlist. Sometimes, when you end up with two or three candidates, it is worth researching back on each family to see if there are any similarities of occupation, naming patterns and familiarity with places your ancestor lived.
- Look for Wills or other documents. Make sure you check for any wills, not only for your direct ancestor where he might name siblings, but also any wills in the area with the same surname within his lifetime. If he is named as a relative, then you will have identified his family. Also, check documents such as apprenticeship records, where the father is often named, or land records (if the family owned property) which might given detailed of lands/property gifted to children.
- Keep Going. In the case of too many possibilities, there are often just too many results to carry out the above, unless you have lots and lots of time and patience! But it might be something you can keep coming back to while you work on other lines of your family tree. Make a shortlist of the most likely individuals and find out what you can about them, eliminating where you can, making notes until you have a list of possibles. One of them might just jump out at you. However, it is likely in this case that you are never going to be 100% certain, and often we have to live with a probable rather than a definite. Just make sure you have stated that this is not a proven ancestor in any notes or histories you write.