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?
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 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….]
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?
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 ancestorâs 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.
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.
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 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!
- Start at the beginning.
- Thoroughly research all aspects of your ancestor’s life.
- Research your ancestor’s community.
- Utilize DNA testing.
- How To Research âOut of the Boxâ Genealogy â (Round 2)
- How Did Your Ancestor Earn a Living & Why You Want to Find Out
- A Close Up Look At The 1880 Census
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