3 Tips for Researching Common Surnames

Researching common surnames such as Smith, Jones, or Brown is frustrating because there are tons of other Smiths, Jones, and Browns out there.   Combine that with some common first names like Joseph, John, William, Mary, Elizabeth, and Polly – and it can be enough to make your head spin!  So how do you separate your John Smith from everyone else’s John Smith?

Learn 3 Quick Tips for Researching Common Surnames

  1. Create Detailed Comparison Charts.  Create a table that lists every fact you have on your common name ancestor.  List facts for your ancestor such as occupation, residences, name of spouse, land transactions, city directory listings, names listed on obituaries, church records, newspaper listings, etc.  Be sure to get every detail possible from every record you have.  This will help you see at a glance what you know about this person and help you separate your ancestor from other people with the same name. Tip: If you are looking at two (or more) people of the same name and in same area (town or county) but you aren’t sure which one is your ancestor, then create the above chart that lists all of this information for each of these people.  This will help you compare these two people and when you find a new record, you’ll be able to better identify who it applies to.
  2. Cluster Research: While there may be a bazillion John Jones’, there won’t be as many that have a wife Susan, daughters Elizabeth and Margaret, and sons Joseph, William, and Abel.  If you can add ages to these family members, you’ll up your chances of being able to find them in census and other records.  But don’t just stick to the immediate family: expand your target to learn about every neighbor, business associate, witness, and sponsor you can find.  Knowing who your ancestors associated with can help you separate them from everyone else.
  3. Use a Variety of Records: Use all sorts of different records when doing your research.  This will help you confirm some of the information you already have and help you gather new information that can identify your ancestor.  Don’t just use the internet to find records – go to different repositories, your local family history centers – and if you are lucky enough to live in Salt Lake City then go to the Family History Library.  Explore record groups that you aren’t comfortable with.

Just because your ancestors have a common surname does not mean that you can’t research them.  You just have to get creative and be persistent.

*Source* The above photo is from Evil Erin on Flickr.

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4 responses to “3 Tips for Researching Common Surnames

  1. Boy, do I know this surname story! Believe it or not, there are just about as many Yateses in the world as Smith and Jones. And, I have three Smith lines too. Ugh! I’ve (sometimes unconsciously) tried all the methods you cited and it’s so true for all of them. Good post Elyse!
    Carol Yates Wilkerson´s last blog post ..How To Find War Patriots In Land Records

  2. My family surname of LeBlanc is just like searching for a Smith. It was the largest family in Acadia and the largest family to come out of Acadia. With 5 sons who gave our progenitors, their parents, 35 grandsons, how could we miss? In the U.S. it is made more complex by the fact that many changed their names to White in order to find work. The Italians did the same with Blanco – makes for an interesting search.


  3. Israel Pickholtz

    I wrote on this subject in a Jewish context a few years ago. Have a look, if you wish.

  4. Great tips! I used #1 for months as I tried to figure out which of 2 Mary Smiths in a teeny, tiny town was mine. Both were girls the same age in different families. I studied both for months, before I gathered enough info to determine which was mine.

    Slow and steady wins the race, and helps in genealogy, too.
    Amy Coffin´s last blog post ..Genealogy Videos- Family History in 3 Minutes

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