All-Too-Common Problem

By Sharon DeBartolo Carmack Premium

So there are 31,139 John Smiths in the 1900 US census — and your ancestor, unfortunately, is one of them. How will you ever find the right guy? We all have ancestors with common names. And if you don’t think you have any, as soon as you start hunting for a particular person, you’ll find out just how common his name was.

Not to worry. You can take these three steps to ensure the John Smith in a given record is your John Smith:

1. Learn as much identifying information about your ancestor as possible.

2. Anchor him with someone who has an uncommon name.

3. Make a chronology of his life events.

Here’s how it works for your John Smith: He lived in Illinois, limiting the possibilities to, 1,719. You’re sure he was in Chicago, Cook County — only a mere 537 John Smiths listed there. Lookin’ better. Narrowing the search even more, you enter his birth year of 1867. Only 13 match. But the clincher to identifying your John Smith is his wife’s name: Bronislava Smith.

Looking at another example, the surname Riggs ranked 886th of the 1,000 most common US surnames in the 1990 census. But finding just two or three John Riggses living in Accomack Co., Va., in the 1700s made the name common in my research.

I used all three strategies to help me sort them out. First, I found my “anchor” for the John I wanted in his wife’s rather unusual name, Jemima Melichop. Anytime John appeared in a record mentioning Jemima or the Melichop family, I knew I had the right John Riggs.

The next strategy was learning more about each of the John Riggses than they probably knew themselves. I did this by searching original land and tax records. No two men own the same property at once, or are taxed on the same horses, cattle and watches. So the details in these records become like fingerprints for a person with a common name.

Finally, I made a chronological table of events for each John Riggs and scrutinized all the dates. I feel pretty comfortable concluding that one of them, who died in 1830, almost certainly wasn’t the same man taking someone to court 11 years later.

From the May 2008 Family Tree Magazine