Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Making Your Way Through a Fog of Names

A quick search on the website for the surname "Smith" shows over 15 million results and of those results, about 1.4 million of those results have the name "John Smith." Of course, not all English names are as common as Smith or Jones, but every language of the world has its "commonly used" names. My own name has over 52,000 results. Fighting your way through record searches when your ancestor has a relatively common name is like walking into a dense fog.

Unfortunately, many genealogists never get past the "name search" level of genealogy. This issue is often referred to as the "same name = same person" problem. Separating two or more people with the same or very similar names can be overwhelmingly difficult. I have found people with the same name, living in the same small area, with the same birth and death dates. The only distinguishing features seemed to be their occupations.

If you don't care if you are related to a person and are simply trying to fill in all the empty spaces on your pedigree, then this post is obviously not directed at you. But if you care about your relationship to the people you are researching, then you need to be aware of the methodology used to separate commonly named individuals.

I use because I have a huge number of English ancestors. I also use the program because their particular search engine allows me to focus on the number of people with the same or similar name in a decreasingly smaller geographic area. For example, take the search for "John Smith." Here is a screenshot of the results.

Now let's add some qualifiers or filters. First, let's limit the area under consideration from England in general to a specific county.

Here, I put in Kent County and got a significant reduction in the number of results. By the way, you can use almost any search engine to do this, but is particularly well suited for this kind of analysis. Now, let's add a time period, say from 1820 to 1825.

Although there is a drop in the number, the reduction isn't much help. This points up a basic issue with all genealogical research: We have to know where an event in the person's life occurred. I will take a look at a specific parish: Tenterden.

Now we are getting somewhere. We have only 42 results and some of them are not specific to Tenterden. If we go down the list, some of them also have middle names. Now we have to begin looking at each of the entries to see if the details match those implied from looking at the rest of the family.

The main challenge in using this type of analysis is knowing where the people lived and being consistent in looking in the same area. For example, in this list, there are two locations Wittersham and Appledore. How far apart are these two towns?

They are quite close together and we will definitely have to find more information before we determine which of these two is the one we are looking for. The first record that came up is from the 1851 England, Wales, and Scotland Census. We can start there to see the occupation that is listed and so we start the journey into more and more specific research.

In some cases, with my own ancestors, I have multiple people with the same names in the same places and have yet to find my way through the fog. The danger here is that you make an arbitrary choice.


  1. If the parish is covered on Free Reg, there is the option of searching nearby parishes (8miles radius I think). I also use Google maps but specify the 'walk' option - in the hope that it may help with my ancestors born before bikes and cars. Unfortunately my John Smith of Bthersden remains elusive!

  2. On Freereg there is an option of searching the chosen Parish and parishes within an 8 mile radius. With Google maps I use the walk option which may give a slightly different distance for my ancestors who predate bicycles/cars. Neither tactic has helped me identify my John Smilt from Bethersden but will persevere!