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Dear Professor Gates:

For example, George Marshall Christian’s brother, Charles Monroe Christian, appears to have also used his first and middle name interchangeably. His full name is recorded on his World War I draft registration card, which we pulled up on Ancestry.com (subscription required), but in the 1920 census (also available on Ancestry.com), his name was recorded as Monroe Christian.

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With this information I used Ancestry.com and FamilySearch to find them, and I did. In a 1900 census my great-grandfather George was living in Chapel, Va., in Clarke County, with his siblings and his father, Bony Christian (born 1856), and mother, Lucy Christian (born 1862). I was so excited when I found this information but my excitement quickly turned to confusion.

On a World War I registration card, my great-grandfather listed his nearest relative as John Christian living in Virginia’s Clarke County and on a marriage record his father is listed as John Christian. But on his older brother's marriage record, the father is listed as Bonaparte Christian. The 1920 census listed John Christian (born 1846), my great-grandfather George (born 1897) and one of his siblings, in Winchester, Va.

In an 1870 census I found Bonaparte (listed here as born 1854) living with his siblings as well as his parents, Monroe Christian (born 1800) and Mary Christian (born 1810), in Clarke County in Chapel, Va.

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What can I do to confirm the identity of George Marshall Christian’s father? —Antonio L. Christian

It certainly seems there’s a high likelihood that they are the same person. It is not uncommon for the same individual to be referred to with two different names across records, particularly if they often used their middle name as their first name.

It’s Best to Start With a Chart

The best way to confirm this is to keep a detailed chart comparing the information you gather about Bonaparte John Christian in each record you find. This could include facts such as his age, birthplace, length of time married or any other details that you uncover.

You’ll want to find as much documentation as you can about all George Marshall Christian’s siblings since they may have referred to their father in records in different ways if he used two different names. This could help reveal trends that will aid you in determining if they were the same person. From the information you have gathered already, we constructed the following chart to give you a sense of how to organize the information you uncover:

Other Ways of Identifying a Pattern in Name Usage

It may also be helpful to create a timeline as well. You may notice a trend, perhaps a time when the name appearing in records changes. Based on the table we put together with the documents you already found, it appears that on records from 1916 and earlier his name was recorded as Bonaparte while documents after 1918 use John. Perhaps between these two dates is when your relative decided to go by another name.

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Locating more documents for the family and continuing to fill in the table will help you determine if this could be the case. Additionally, if you notice that only the oldest children in the family were recording their father as Bonaparte while the youngest were calling him John, the records may actually refer to two different men.

You can also look for patterns within the family that may help you determine the likelihood that this man used his first and middle names interchangeably. If other family members also alternated between using their first and middle names in various records, this may suggest a trend in the family that would help support the fact that this individual went by two different names.

His name was also recorded as Monroe in the 1900 census, which you have already located. This indicates that Charles Monroe Christian often used his middle name in place of his given name. Locating the records of other siblings may help you determine whether this practice was common in the family.

Cast a Wide Net in Your Records Search

You’ll want to locate as many records as you can for all the relatives to be sure of trends within the family. When searching on websites such as Ancestry.com and FamilySearch, it’s helpful to also search for specific locations or collections from the community where your ancestor resided. For example, in searching on Ancestry.com for collections just in Virginia, you can further limit your search to Clarke County, the specific community where the Christian family lived.

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Ancestry.com has a database called Clarke County, Virginia Births, 1878-96. We conducted a search for the surname Christian that returned four records of births with the surname Christian. Two were for children who were not given first names and were born on Feb. 15, 1887, and April 5, 1888, respectively. Their father was recorded as B. Christian and their mother as Lucy. There are also birth records for a John Christian, born April 3, 1894, and a Lucy Christian, born April 2, 1896, both to parents named Benjamin and Lucy. For all these children, the race was recorded as “colored” or “black.”

It seems likely that these are birth records for siblings of your George Marshall Christian. At first glance, this appears to add yet another possible name, Benjamin Christian, to the possible names for George Marshall Christian’s father.

This database is just an index, however, and it’s possible that Bonaparte was transcribed incorrectly as Benjamin. Ordering and reviewing copies of the original documents will help you determine if these other records refer to Bonaparte Christian’s children, whose names you could then add to your timeline of the family.

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There is also a collection of death records for Virginia’s Clarke County from 1853 to 1896. This collection has two death records that very likely refer to the two Christian family children who were not given names. Both records indicate that the parents were B. and Lucy Christian and they each died just days after their birth. When we compared this information with the birth and death records we located for the family household in 1900, none of these children’s names appeared.

The record also states, however, that Lucy Christian gave birth to 11 children and that six of them were still living, meaning she lost five children. The spacing of the ages in the household does allow for the birth records we located, and one child, Mammie Christian, was born in April 1888, the same time as one of the unnamed children.

It is possible that she had a twin who did not survive. These births were before the birth of your George Marshall Christian, which seems to indicate that at that time his father was using the name Bonaparte.

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Since records of these births and deaths exist, there’s a chance that birth records exist for the rest of the children as well but they might not have been included in the online index. You could contact the Clarke County Recorder Office to see if it has the birth records of the other children, including George Marshall Christian, that will likely include the name of their father.

If you can locate a birth record for your George Marshall Christian that says his father’s name is Bonaparte, you can use that along with the other records located to prove that John/Bonaparte Christian used two different names throughout his life.

The key to making the best case for John Christian’s having been the same person as Bonaparte Christian is conducting an exhaustive search of records for the family and organizing them in a way that makes trends clear. Even if you are unable to locate a record for him that includes both names, you will be able to demonstrate to a high likelihood that they are the same person.

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Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, a researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.