Genealogy Research,  How To Trace Your Family Tree

How To Research Your Common Surname Ancestors

Struggling to research your common surname ancestors? Try these 4 strategies to help you find those ancestors with all too common last names!

Tracing an ancestor with a common surname can be just plain frustrating. Am I right?

I never intended to research my White family ancestors. That 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 of such a genealogy project. I knew there would be no quick or easy answers. But then….

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 ancestor 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?

Black and white photo of Thomas Jefferson White form the early 1900's
Thomas Jefferson White

A Genealogy Research Plan for Finding Common Surname Ancestors

I’m sharing with you the four (4) steps I include in my genealogy research plan when I start the hunt for ancestors with those common surnames. Names like Brown, Johnson, Smith… 

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.The information could be from previous research that included traditional records such as censuses and wills.  Maybe you have oral history in the family. Write that down, too.  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.

If possible, use traditional genealogy research methods to confirm your oral history.

I know the temptation is to hurry through this step. Resist the urge! 

In the case of the White family I knew several generations back from the family’s oral history. Each generation was confirmed using census records, wills and estate records, and deeds.  Take each generation back until you reach the earliest ancestor you know is “yours”. In the case of the White family  of Surry County, North Carolina, John White (d. Aft. 1840) was as far back as I could go with certainty. 

[Notice he had a common first name, too! Sigh….]

Slide of White family line back from Cecile White to James Abe White to Thomas White to Joseph White to John White


2. Thoroughly Research Your Earliest Ancestor.

You must know your ancestor with a common name (especially if both first and last name are common)  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. When your ancestor’s trail goes cold in the usual records, seek out uncommon genealogy sources, too! These might include records such as coroner’s records, city directories, tax records (some of my favorites!), merchant records, school records, lunacy records…. [Read more about uncommon genealogy sources and records here and here.]

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?  

Black and white photo of TJ White with white text on dark tan background reading Common Surname Ancestors?
Pin for Future Reference!!

As you search the records, make note of the records he is not found in. We refer to this as negative evidence, and it can be just as important as the knowing what records you ancestor did create.

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 the records in order to determine distinguish him from other John Whites in the area.

3. Research Your Ancestor’s Community.

Who lived close to your ancestor? What was their relationship, if any?  You can find yourself researching the lineage of the neighbors which is a good thing. Clues to a family relationship or clues to a location where the families lived previously can potentially be found.

Consider who was mentioned in your ancestor’s records?  Determine the relationship of each person to him that is mentioned in your ancestor’s documents. Understanding your ancestor’s relationship to those around him is a critical step not to be missed. 

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, if possible. Important details could have been missed by the abstractor.

Slide of a quote from the 1830 Will of John Seagroves of NC

Genealogy Tip:  Understand the terms and how those terms were used at the time the document was created. In the above example, John White Sen’r is named. During this time period, Sen’r or Senior simply implied there were two John Whites in the area who could potentially be confused in the records. The writer of the will used Sen’r to indicate he was referring to the elder John White.  While not named in this record, a John White, Junior was found in the 1830’s in the same area.  John White, Junior actually became John White, Senior later in life when his own son of the same name became of age.

Confusing, right? Junior and Senior were simply age designations that could change as needed.  They were not titles that indicated relationships between two men.

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 surnames without both.  

Blue depiction of DNA helix

Testing is quite easy and the tests can be ordered from FamilyTreeDNA and  (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 at all!

Uh oh…. now what? Using DNA evidence (Y-DNA of multiple male descendants) and a 1759  Granville County, NC apprentice bond  my research partner and I were able to piece together a family unit for John White’s father and extend the line further back.

Don’t be intimidated by your common surname ancestors.

Tracing ancestors with common names is time consuming and even tedious. I don’t tell you that to discourage you, but to encourage you not to throw up your hands in despair. Through the process of researching him (or her), you will sharpen your genealogy research skills. That’s never a bad thing!


  1. Start at the beginning.
  2. Thoroughly research all aspects of your ancestor’s life.
  3. Research your ancestor’s community.
  4. Utilize DNA testing.

Keep Learning!

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  • Alice

    Thanks for the good pointers. My family names are Brown, Jones, and Murphy, among others. Not easy to trace. My big hangup is with my great grandfather who was named Napoleon Bonaparte Murphy, He never shows up in any online searches. Only one match is ever found and that is for a man in Illinois. My family was southern and does not match up. I can’t find a paper trail that is not there. What do you advise?

    • LisaL

      Alice, The good news is your great-grandfather has a distinctive first name. That should help (eventually). My first thought is to wonder if he went by a different first name, i.e. a nickname. Check with the family and see if anyone knows or see if you can find a male Murphy in the records that matches other aspects of his life. Check the tax records for his area. Tax records can help place an ancestor in time and locale year to year.

  • Ron Courtney

    I don’t really have a success story to report, more a comment on the issue. I too have for the most part avoided trying to trace one of my maternal great-grandmothers Mary Ellen Johnson (even a common given name). I’ts not like there aren’t a lot of Johnsons in East TN. I have a similar dilemma on my wife’s side since her grandmother was a Davis, another common name in the mountains of western NC.

    I will try to use some of your strategies to see if I can make any progress on those lines. I have run into a roadblock on my wife’s grandmother’s line in that I can’t find him, Richard Davis, and his wife, Hester Williams, prior to the 1880 census in Jackson County, NC. I have heard no family stories of where the family came from when relocating to the NC mountains, though I suspect like so many others it may have been VA.

    Thanks for all of your helpful tips.

    Also thank goodness that I have some lines to research like Susong and Kesterson. Even my Courtney surname is not too common. My main problem there was that every generation seemed to have numerous James, Williams and Georges popping up. Of course my great-grandfather had to be a George and his father and grandfather were both James.

    Ron Courtney
    Dallas, NC

    • Alisa

      Ron, I also have a similar problem with my husbands family from Eastern TN last names Davis and Williams located around the Blount county TN areas.

  • Jane George

    I Have a John White, my GG Grandfather, born somewhere in Cork, Ireland, still searching the hundreds of John Whites who married Ellens (Murphy)!

  • Denise May

    I have a lot of Joneses in my line. Fortunately, a lot of them have Phineas as a given name–till I get to a John. John Jones. Ugh. He is my 5g grandfather and not many records are available.

  • JC Smith

    Great article, but I have one more tip. Search for patterns. My paternal grandmother’s family had them. When a Michael popped up, it didn’t look right to me. Turns out he had been a family slave and took the name upon emancipation. Interesting story, but not a relative.

  • Suzanne McGee

    I have been searching for the parents of my paternal gggrandfather, Stephen Evans who was born in Surry County, NC. I have seen other researchers who have claimed William Evans and Rebecca Puckett who married in Halifax, Virginia; but I have been unable to prove that for myself. No one has shown documentation so for my purposes I’m still searching.
    My other issue is my maternal gggrandfather William Williams who was born in Tennessee in 1808. I think every Williams family named their children William, James, John or George.

  • Martha Stevenson Wright

    Lisa, you are so right about adding DNA to the search! My husband’s great grandfather, William Wright, was an enigma until we did autosomal, and then yDNA. Still not sure that we have his correct parents, but the common Abel Wright is by far superseded by his wife Subminthia Buswell Wright! On to the Family History Library, Salt Lake City in July, WooHoo!

  • Leslie

    What a timely article! I have recently gone back to researching my ADAMS line in colonial Virginia. My last verified ancestor was Abraham Adams who stated that he was born in Loudoun Co, VA in 1767. Of course I can’t verify his birth. I am fairly certain that Abraham’s father was Isaac Adams (based on a personal letter Abraham’s grandson wrote that stated his great-grandfather was named Isaac Adams and he was a gentleman of Virginia) but that’s where I hit the brick wall. I’ll try your suggestions………..wish me luck!

  • Leslie

    What a timely article!! I have recently gone back to researching my ADAMS line in colonial Virginia. Needless to say, there were a lot of Adams’ there!

    The oldest Adams ancestor I have verified is Abraham Adams, who stated he was born in Loudoun Co, VA in 1767. Of course I have not been able to verify his birth. I believe that Abraham’s father was named Isaac Adams (based on a personal letter written by Abraham’s grandson in the 1800s where he says his grandfather was Abraham Adams and his great-grabdfather was Isaac Adams, a Virginia gentleman.)

    So, back to Virginia using your suggestions. Wish me luck!

  • c christensen

    I’m trying to connect John Banker Scribner (8 Aug 1827, Clinton Co. NY – 14 Mar 1918, Wadena, MN) to Benjamin Scrivener and Hannah Andrews Crampton. JB married (1) Eliza Ostrander and (2) Sarah Wilson. Sarah kept a family bible and copied her records into one for her daughter Eleanor–who passed it on to a granddaughter, my husband’s aunt Eleanore. I have a complete set of photos and scans of the family record pages. I’m pretty sure JB’s parents were Jeremiah Scribner and Eleanor Banker (b 24 Jan 1801 in Plattsburgh, NY – 12 Feb 1858)–but I’m not exactly certain WHICH Jeremiah Scribner was the husband. There are several to choose from who would have been suitable. I’m hoping there is a well-documented evidence somewhere that I can link up to.
    FWIW, I get to Alexandria, VA at least once every year–so if there are records somewhere in the DC area, I can get to them–or I could if I knew where to look!

    • LisaL

      You may find yourself researching deeply into all of those Jeremiah Scribners to be able to differentiate them and find the best possible candidate for JB’s father. I recommend you share you question in the AYMC Facebook group. Other researchers in that area may have insight into unique records for that area.

  • Linda

    I’m stumped by ancestors before 1840… census don’t show but one name… can I assume that man & lady in 20’s are married and parents to children enumerated? Women did related to childbirth and relatives came to stay with widower… how can I know? Just guess?

  • Mari

    We know a family of “White’s” whose surname used to be Wieckowicz. That is something else that might me considered. The changing of surnames.

  • Delores Martin

    One of the ancestors that i research is William Martin. There is another William Martin in the same county. William Martin 1 is my husband’s ancestor. He was born in Franklin County, Virginia married to Margaret Elizabeth Janney. No marriage record has been found. According to a delayed birth certificate their oldest child was born in Giles County, Virginia. I haven’t been able to find them living in Giles County in the 1860 census. Both William Martin’s died within a year of each other. According to his wife he was born in Franklin County Virginia but she didn’t know is parents names. He is still a mystery. Other researchers mix these two men up all the time.

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