Name's the Same But . . .Is the Man?
What's in a name? Whether we like the name we were given or not, as children we tend to think of our names as unique, something personal to us. After all, our name identifies us to family, friends and the world at large.
As we grow up we realize that often several or even many other people share our same name. Open any big city telephone directory and you'll find many with the same name, particularly the more common surnames. In order to identify the correct John Smith, David Brown or Joseph Jones, etc., you probably need to know at least approximately where he lives.
In genealogical research, we need to constantly be aware of the "same name" trap. Otherwise a researcher may wind up spending time and money researching someone else's ancestor.
Doing U.S. census research quickly points out the incidence of same names. Often when the same names are shared by several family members living in the same area it can be a challenge to separate one from another. Early censuses listed only the householder and number of persons in the home, but 1850 and later censuses name each individual. If you know a man's occupation, his wife or children's names it is easier to distinguish him from his others of the same name.
When doing research in the courthouse it may help to know how a man signed his name. If you recognize his signature, you can positively identify his records. Reading the text of wills and deeds will usually provide clues to help decide whether a record is a given man or another of that name.
Some names tend to repeat over and over in a family. In my Smith database, I have nine men named Nathaniel Smith born between 1729 and 1764 and ten men named Noah Smith, all born between 1698 and 1756. Further complicating matters some are related to one or more of the 21 Mary Smiths or 20 Sarah Smiths I've collected.
Suffield, Connecticut had so many Smiths town officials coded their given names, i.e., Noah Jr. and Noah Sr. or Noah 1, Noah 2 and Noah 3. The problem is that when Noah Sr. died Noah Jr. became Noah Sr. and similarly, Noah 2 and 3 would move up a notch upon the death of Noah 1. Also, Noah Jr. was not necessarily the son of Noah Sr., but might be a nephew or cousin.
My ancestor Gaius Smith, a resident of Vermont and New York in the1800s, has a more unique name - how many named Gaius could there be? Well, there are at least three contemporary Gaius Smiths in addition to mine, one each in Massachusetts, Ohio and Vermont and it does not appear they are related to each other.
Not only common names can be confusing. The relatively uncommon surname Leonard is borne by one of my family lines in New Jersey in the 1600s. Repeated use of the given names Henry, Samuel, Nathaniel, and Thomas combined with no vital or census records and few church or marriage records has made it tedious to differentiate between these family members with any assurance of accuracy.
Watch for inconsistencies to help in your research. Try to determine each "same name" man's occupation, residence, immediate family members' names and any other distinguishing characteristics, such as occupation, nickname, etc.
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15 October 2012