Identity is a topic that is one of the most critical concepts to understand in genealogy (especially for beginners). Too often we assume that when we find a person with the same name living in the same place as our ancestor, it must be our ancestor. That is a mistake. You’ll hear the phrase “The Names the Same” in genealogy circles as shorthand for that tendency. I addressed this topic in 2009 but thought it infinitely worthy of repeating.
We have to learn how to be discerning when researching our ancestors. Even a name that sounds odd or rare today could have been very common for the time and place we are studying. I documented this in a blog post about my ancestor Rezin Prather. That name sounds odd today, but in the 1900s? Turns out, not so odd.
Just like today, names were popularized during different eras. People named their children after prominent individuals and people they admired. People often named their children after their own parents and siblings—this practice is particularly strong in the African-American community. Every line in my family repeated names through the generations. And we must remember that the suffix “Jr.” does not always imply that the “Jr.” is the son of the “Sr.” Historically that convention was used to distinguish between two men of the same name in a community, usually where one is older than the other. I thought for many years that my ancestor John Wesley Holt, Jr., was the son of the John Wesley Holt, Sr., living in the same community. He was not.
I have posted before about how assumptions can lead us astray and nowhere is this more prevalent than assuming someone is our person of interest because of their name. Learn how to use more than just a name to assert identity. Other criteria you can use are (not a complete list):
Spouses and children
Middle names (initials)
Where they lived
Landownership and wealth
Literacy (can they read and/or write?)
Physical description (may be in a draft document or military pension)
Military service or lack thereof
It is important that we take family lore and oral history and any history that has already been done by others and validate each relationship ourselves, preferably using original records. My Prather family has had many reunions over the years, and a copy of the family tree was given to all members. When I began to research this line myself, I began by researching the tree already provided to me many years ago. Our practice should never be to take information given to us at face value. After researching death, marriage, land and other records, I very quickly realized that something was quite wrong. My 2nd great-grandfather’s name is Levi Prather. These are census entries for two men by that name in the 1870 Montgomery County, MD census. Any idea what the problem is?
Whomever created our tree attached our family to the Levi Prather who is three years old instead of the Levi who is a grown and newly married man. They matched a name instead of proving identity. (This is no slight to my wonderful relatives who did this research;) It’s an easy mistake to make.
My Prather family “launches into the deep” in Montgomery County, from emancipation through the present. By way of another example, there are two women named Ida Bell in the 1920 census. They are about the same age, both African-American, and were both born and raised in Montgomery County. One is married to man named Zachariah Bell and the other is married to his brother, James Bell.
Marriage records revealed that Prather was the maiden name for both women. The two women were cousins and you can see the possibilities for confusion even after they marry, because they still had the same last name! In this simple example, their middle names and location helped to differentiate between these two women. Zachariah’s wife was Ida Virginia Prather, while James’ wife was Ida Jane Prather. Zachariah and his wife later migrated to and lived in Washington, D.C. If you were just a “census surfer” blithely clicking away to add this record to your online tree without examining it first, you would have fallen for the “same name” trap. We would still need to figure out each Ida’s accurate family of origin–who were each women’s parents?
My Waters family from the small community of Upper Fairmount in Somerset County is no easier case. In fact, they perpetually named everyone in every generation the same names. The men were almost all named John, George, Joshua, William, and Samuel. The women were almost all Betsy (or Elizabeth) Mary, Sarah, Henrietta, Rachel, Laura, and Annie. I thought the name “Levin” would give me a break, but there were ten African-American men named Levin Waters! There were even four couples named William and Laura Waters that I also had to sort out. Months and months of making charts and painstakingly piecing families together generationally has helped me to distinguish between those in this community.
Complications to watch out for are inaccuracies on the census, multiple marriages and people who died before death certificates (and other vital records) were kept. It’s easy to link a person who has in fact died and think they are another person with the same name in the next census. Also, missing marriage records or marriages that took place outside the community where the people lived can also cause problems. And the 20-year “Donut Hole” between 1880 and 1900 is a pitfall all by itself.
I am always using and suggesting charts so here is a part of the one I used to sort the Levin Waters out (click to enlarge):
I used a similar process when I was sorting through the various Rezin Prathers. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but you need something that allows you to record identifying information as you sort through census, land, marriage, death, probate and other records. This is all information that will be used to prove identity. Many times as you start to work this process it visually becomes easier to “see” the different men: You might notice that one man was a Civil War soldier when the others weren’t. One man owned land when the other didn’t. One man has a headstone at a certain cemetery when others don’t. One man lived in Westover while another lived in Princess Anne.
We should always be focusing on identity, but especially when we come across another person with the same name living near your ancestor. You should know automatically you have more work to do. Every time you find a record, you should be able to use multiple factors to differentiate your ancestor. This becomes exceedingly important when your person or couple of interest moves to another area or state. You must be able to show that the “James Holt” from Hardin County, TN, is the same “James Holt” that eventually migrated to Indianapolis, Indiana. When you start crossing county and state lines, you need to ensure this is still your ancestor. That is done by analyzing and studying your person of interest through as wide a berth of records as possible.
In yet another of my cases, this was even more difficult because there were two men named James Holt in Hardin County to begin with. The “other” James Holt, as a Methodist minister, showed up in a different state in every census, sometimes with just his initials. Of course now I had to prove that “J.M.” was “James” to begin with (and not John and not Joseph)! And did I mention he got a new wife somewhere along the way? And oh yes, which James Holt goes with which set of parents? Ugh.
It goes without saying that all of this is a part of practicing the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS). All of us, professional genealogist and home hobbyist alike, should strive to learn about and how to meet these standards. They are simple concepts to learn.
As I mentioned before, those researching African-Americans would be wise to use naming practices as evidence in and of themselves of family relationships, so prevalent was the practice. My grandmother proudly told me that she and her siblings were mostly named for her mother’s siblings. Imagine my joy when I realized that Levi and Martha Prather found a way to work in the names of both their mothers and their fathers (all four names) into the names of their 12 children. Martha’s daughter, Harriet Leanna, helped me to identify an unknown sister who was named guess what? Yes. Harriet Leanna.
Genealogy keeps showing me that nothing worthwhile is easy. And every now and then naming and tracking people still trips me up. Readers, can you share in your comments stories of same named people you ran across and how you were able to prove their identity? And remember~
Just because the names the same, doesn’t mean the person is.