Dear Professor Gates:
I would like to know if you have any advice on how to trace one’s family with a common surname such as Smith or Jones. Any help is greatly appreciated. —T. Jones
It can be challenging to trace a family with a common name. It often requires putting time and effort into researching individuals who may not necessarily be connected to your ancestors, just in order to rule them out. You will also need to pay particular attention to the details of your known ancestors in order to find more information on the family. It can sometimes feel as if you are putting together a huge jigsaw puzzle. Here are some suggestions that may make the process a little less daunting.
Create Profiles of Your Ancestors
Your ancestors were unique individuals regardless of how common their surname might be. Keep detailed notes of your ancestors to compare their information with that of others who have the same surname. Note their age, occupation, residence, spouse and children’s names, as well as any other unique information you uncover that may make your ancestor easier to identify in other records. For example, he may be one of many Tom Joneses in a particular town, but not all of them were the same age, had a wife named Catharine and were a blacksmith. Creating a sheet listing all of these facts for comparison will help you determine at a glance whether a record may pertain to your ancestor.
Focus on Location
Determining a specific location to search for your ancestors will help you narrow the number of people to look at with that surname. If your ancestor remained in the same town for his or her entire life, you could research others with that surname in the same location to see how they fit into the family. If your ancestor moved from place to place, create a chronology of where your ancestor lived and when. This way you can limit your search in those specific locations within a given time span. This helps to focus your research so that you are more likely to locate records relating to your ancestors.
Research Related Families
Even if people in one of your lines had a common surname, they may have married or were closely associated with people who had less-common surnames. If your Tom Jones married Catharine Hornburg, you’ll want to focus on researching the Hornburg family. Documents for associated families, particularly land and probate records, may mention your ancestors.
In addition to families that married into your Jones family, pay attention to their neighbors or to people who served as witnesses to your family’s wills, land records, marriages and births. People often migrated and settled with people they knew, and if you notice a pattern of the same surnames always living near your family or participating in major events of the family, it may be worth doing a bit of research on them, too.
Identify Someone in the Family With a Unique First Name
It is often the case that someone with a common surname also has a common given name, which can be frustrating. If your ancestor has both a common first and last name, search for someone in his or her family (a sibling, child, cousin, etc.) who had a first name that stands out or is a bit different. A unique name does not have to be wildly different but could just be a name that is not common in that area. For example, perhaps the town where your family lived had a number of Tom Joneses but only one or two Peter Joneses. Identifying a unique name may help you determine, when looking at records, whether you are looking at your family or another.
Create Charts to Track Information About Your Ancestors
Organization is crucial to sorting out individuals with common surnames. Keeping a spreadsheet or a chart with information on each ancestor you identify in your search may help you sort out how they are all connected. This may be particularly helpful if you have two or more people with the same name who are close in age and living in the same area.
Creating a comparison chart between your ancestor and others with the same name will allow you to recognize which records belong to your ancestor. As you search through records, you can continue to add to the chart any new records you can identify as belonging to your ancestor or to someone else with the same name. It also allows you to create a timeline for each person. Organizing information can often lead you to connections and can provide ideas on where else to look for new information.
Search Land Records
Digging deep into land records allows you to link your ancestors to land passed from one generation to the next. Pay attention to the description of the land in the records, not just to the people mentioned in them. For example, if both Tom Joneses in town had sons named Robert, you may have trouble identifying which one is yours in a probate or vital record. Looking at the description of the land, however, may help you determine which family was connected to a particular piece of land. You can then use that description to compare with later and earlier records to see how that same land was passed from one person to the next. This could help you link generations together.
Map the Entire Family in a Particular Area
Sometimes the only way to fully sort out which individuals belong to your family is to conduct at least some research into everyone with that surname in the town or county where your family was living. Taking notes as you search through records for anyone with the surname Jones may help you recognize patterns within the family. This may allow you to sort out family groups. It can be a long process, but if you create a chart for each family, you can simply add to each group as you search through records.
Researching ancestors with common names is not an impossible task. It just requires a little creativity, organization and some patience.
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 co-founder 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 about researching African-American roots.