I never intended to research my White family ancestors. The common surname “White” just seemed too daunting.
John White in colonial North Carolina and Virginia? No, thank you.
Quite frankly, I was intimidated by the prospect.
A phone call from a fellow White family researcher changed all of that. Fast forward a number of years and together we have solved many of the White family mysteries.
It turns out researching the common name White is not impossible. Challenging? Absolutely. Common surname research stretched me as a researcher and taught me strategies for success. It will for you, too!
How about you? Are you struggling to research your common name ancestors?
4 Strategies for Researching Common Surname Ancestors
1.Start at the Beginning.
Just as you would when starting research on any family line, start with what you know. Record everything you know or think you know for each generation. Write down any oral history within you family. Don’t worry at this point, if all of the information is not confirmed or completely accurate. It will provide clues to records as you progress forward in your research. Use traditional genealogy research methods to confirm your information.
In the case of the White family I knew several generations back from the family’s oral history. I did confirm these generations by traditional genealogy research.
2. Thoroughly Research Your Earliest Ancestor.
You must know your ancestor with a common name (especially if both first and last name are common) very well in order to be able to distinguish him from someone else of the same name in the records. Research traditional records such as census records, vital records, wills, estates records, court records, tax records, and land/deed records. Find all mentions of your ancestor in each record and analyze those records to learn more about him. When and where was he born? Who did he marry? Where did he live? Who were his children? Who was mentioned in his records? Determine the relationship of each person mentioned in your ancestor’s documents to him.
In essence, you must:
Re-construct your ancestor’s life decade by decade, year by year, month by month and day by day if possible. Know your ancestor so well that if he/she rings your doorbell today, you would recognize them in an instant.
You need to know your ancestor in this detail in order to recognize him from other individuals of the same name in the records. [Timelines are a very helpful way to organize your research results.]
In the case of John White, we had to know his movements and patterns in order to determine distinguish him from other John Whites in the area.
3. Research Your Ancestor’s Community.
Who lived close? Who appeared as witnesses, neighbors, etc in your ancestor’s wills, estate records, deeds, etc. Whose records did your ancestor appear in? These are people your ancestors would have been doing business with, worshiping with or even related to.
In the case of my John White, after we analyzed his records, we searched for records of others he was in. This was done using abstracts, etc of county records. We looked at every record we possibly could for evidence of John White. Abstracts are very helpful since they usually have an index. Once found in an index, always go that one step further and view the original record. Important details could have been missed by the abstractor.
4. Utilize DNA Testing.
Paper genealogy and DNA testing go hand in hand. It is difficult to solve tricky relationships and especially those involving common names without both.
Testing is quite easy and the tests can be ordered from FamilyTreeDNA and Ancestry.com. (FamilyTreeDNA has tutorials to get you started and help you understand the results.) [Related Post: You Got Your DNA Results. Now You Need To Know What They Mean]
In the case of my White family, DNA showed us to genetically be Swinneys, NOT Whites! Uh oh…. now what? Using DNA evidence (Y-DNA of multiple male descendants) and the paper genealogy trail my partner and I were able to piece together a family unit for John White’s father.
Don’t be intimidated by your common surname ancestors.
You can successfully research those lines and along the way you will become a better researcher, too! Remember….
- Start at the beginning.
- Thoroughly research all aspects of your ancestor’s life.
- Research your ancestor’s community.
- Utilize DNA testing.
Have you had success with researching a common surname ancestor? Share your success in the comments!
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