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Genealogy HowTo
Issue: Mar 21, 2012

5 Tips for Overcoming The Curse of The Common Surname

My maiden name is Smith and if that is not common enough my grandfathers also had common first names like Charles, William, and James. As I have struggled to locate my Smith ancestors, I discovered that there are a few strategies that can greatly increase the likelihood that I would actually find them. Applying these 5 tips in your research methods can also increase your success in finding not only your Smiths but those ancestors who do not have common names.

  1. Make a Timeline of Events in Your Ancestor's Life including Locations
  2. Focus On Your Ancestor's Occupation
  3. Include Other Family Members in Your Research
  4. Look for Obituaries, Wills, & Biographies about Your Ancestor, Their Spouses, or Their Children
  5. County Histories & Newspaper

1. Make a Timeline of Events in Your Ancestor's Life including Locations -
It is crucial that you have a fairly good idea of where your ancestor lived during a given time period. These two items of research information become critical when it comes to researching ancestors with common names. Make a timeline of the events in your ancestor's life.

If you are using the free version of Legacy to record your family data, you can automatically create a timeline including the major historical events, if you purchase an add-on piece of software called Genelines. It probably won't have all of the local events that you may need, but it is a quick and easy start for creating a timeline of your ancestor.

Alternatively after downloading the free version of Legacy you could select the option to pay for the upgrade to the deluxe version which has the timeline feature under the "View" menu item.

The book, "History for Genealogists: Using Chronological Time Lines to Find and Understand Your Ancestor" by Judy Jacobson, has a good illustration of how to make a timeline.

Next include in the timeline local and regional events that would have effected your ancestor and his family. For instance, my William Smith ancestor said he was born in Coshocton County, Ohio and that he was born in 1817.

The "Handibook for Genealogists" from Everton Publishers showed that the formation date of Coshocton County was in 1810. The inclusion of the county formation year in his timeline tends to support his statements about his place and date of birth.

Other personal events that you might know about your ancestor and that should be included in this event-place-date timeline are:

  • spouses birth dates and places
  • marriage dates and places
  • births and baptisms of children
  • death dates and places
  • immigration dates

If you are using the family group display chart in the Genelines software, this information will automatically be added for you.

Other local or regional events to add to the timeline would include wars, epidemics, floods, fires, famines, etc. To find chronological listings of local and regional events for timelines, get the book "History for Genealogists" that I mentioned above or visit some of the links I have listed at the end of this article.

Family Tree Maker 2012 Complete software has a timeline display as one of the items under the view menu. I was not able to find if the historical events that are provided with this genealogy program could be added to or changed or if other timelines could be used in the display.

Creating an event-place-date timeline should not be overly elaborate or time consuming as you will be dealing with a relatively short period of time and usually a limited number of places and events for any given ancestor. This timeline can help you identify and locate records about your common name ancestor. The timeline can also help you disambiguate the people who have the same name as your ancestor.

2. Focus On Your Ancestor's Occupation -
Knowing the occupation of your ancestor can be the next most helpful piece of information and can provide distinct advantages when searching an ancestor with a common name. Let's say for instance that you are searching an ancestor with the occupation of farmer. You might believe the farming occupation is not unique enough. I have found that farmers are "tied to the land" meaning they often stayed in the same place for long periods of time and often bought, sold, or bequeathed land to neighbors or relatives. Land transactions leave a great paper trail for genealogists. Other occupations with paper trails include physicians, legislators, judges, lawyers, and military officers.

Many an ancestor may have had a dangerous occupation like engineers, firemen, boiler tender, or brakeman. Althea Douglas points out in her book "Time Traveler's Handbook - A Guide to the Past" that, "Some of the first brotherhoods (early trade unions) were formed among railway workers as a means of securing life insurance." These trade unions regularly published lists of their memberships.

Other dangerous occupations like miners or lumbermen published newsletters for the communities in which they lived and worked. These newsletters often contained several death notices and obituaries in addition to marriage and birth notices. One example of a mining newsletter is found here at MyTrees.com. There are several extractions of the Michigan, Houghton, Daily Mining Gazette in the Books and Records search.

The most difficult occupations to research are those that required frequent travel, for instance, sailors, soldiers, fishermen, migrant laborer, stone masons, etc. Still knowing that an ancestor's occupation was a blacksmith can be helpful in discerning one William Smith who is a blacksmith from another William Smith in the same area who perhaps is a miner. Don't forget that almost all censuses listed the occupation of anyone over a certain age. If you are able to find an ancestor in one of the censuses and you note his occupation, you will more than likely be able to identify him using that occupation in future censuses.

3. Include Other Family Members in Your Research -
Knowing the names of your ancestor's spouse and children or the names of some of his parents or siblings can also be a real help in distinguishing him from others listed in the same area of the same name, especially if the spouse, children, parents, or siblings had a unique name. Most of the research sources that are family based are structured around time periods and distinct geographical areas. For instance, I was searching for the father of Sarah Adams of Virginia who had married a Rice Beadles. I was able to identify that her father was Nathan Adams of Virginia from his will because she was listed as his daughter using her unique married name.

Besides wills, other family based resources are censuses, city directories, vital records, obituaries, pension records, and you also will benefit from searching the family pedigrees here at MyTrees.com

4. Look for Obituaries, Wills, & Biographies -
All of these sources would more than likely include not only birth and death information but also the names of the parents, spouse, and children of the individual. MyTrees.com previously published a newsletter article about "Finding Obituaries Online". If you want to find an obituary online this article can be a tremendous aid.

Don't forget to search for the obituary of your ancestor's spouse, siblings, or children. I have frequently found the parents names of an ancestor by reading the obituary of one of their siblings.

In order to locate an obituary, will, or biography of an ancestor with a common name you will definitely need to know the approximate place and time period. In calculating when your ancestor might have died, it is helpful to know that the life expectancy of a man who had arrived at the age of 20 in the 1850's to 1900's was between 60 and 70 years of age. For females it was slightly higher. By the 1950's the life expectancy for a man of 20 had jumped to between 70 and 80 years of age. During the 1990's it increased again to between 75 and 82 years. These life expectancy figures may appear higher than what you are accustomed to seeing because these numbers do not include the infant mortality numbers in the calculation.

You will want to find at least a "will abstract", since it usually contains more information than just the person's name and date of birth. A County Historical and/or Genealogical Society would be the best place to look for will abstracts or biographies. MyTrees.com has lists of these Societies at this link. When you find the name of the county website, if the link to the website is not provided, find it by using the Society name and state name in a Google search. Amazon also sells a variety of "Will Abstract Books" for numerous locations. Click the book to the right to see some of the "Will Abstract Books" that are available for purchase ---------------->

5. County Histories & Newspaper -
Once again the best place to find County Histories may be on County Historical and/or Genealogical Society website, and MyTrees.com has lists of these Societies at this link. I have found that the fastest way to find county histories is by doing a Google search using the name of the county, the word county and then the name of the state and the word history. So it would look something like this: Indiana Pike County History. County Histories usually list the names and relationships of the first settlers to an area but they often include biographical sketches of the families that lived in the area. Newspapers may include stories about your common name ancestor and sometimes pictures. I helped to research a family whose great grandfather had helped to settle a small town in Utah. They had already located his obituary but had missed the front page news article and picture in the local paper that was printed a few days later. Most libraries have microfiche of the local newspapers and you can often get copies to view through inter-library loan if you don't live in the area where your ancestor died. If you know the month and year in which your ancestor died, try calling the library to see if they will do a search for you.

A really great resource for historical newspaper articles is the NewspaperArchive.com , the largest historical newspaper database online. The site has indexed tens of millions of newspaper pages from 1753 to the present. Every newspaper in the archive is fully searchable by keyword and date, making it easy for you to quickly explore historical content. The search is free but after you have viewed the first couple of articles they will ask for a small monthly fee to see more newspaper articles. You will get to view an image of the actual newspaper with this service.

I have had a good measure of success using these strategies for finding my Smith ancestors. If you have other research tips that you would like to share I would love to hear about them. Send them to feedback@mytrees.com and I will include them in upcoming newsletters; and thanks in advance for sharing.


Links To Free Timeline Forms
Click here for a simple blank timeline form from Familysearch.org

Click here to download Geneosity.com's free "Family Data Sheet and Timeline"

3 Line Timeline Form from Bailey's Free Genealogy Forms


Links to Timelines for US Historical Events
I did not make these links clickable, so you will need to copy and paste the link into your browser's address field.

A Timeline of American History by Tim Lambert
. http://www.localhistories.org/amertime.html

US State History Timelines e-Reference Desk's College and 50 State Learning Resource Guide
US State History Timelines State by State
http://www.e-referencedesk.com/resources/state-history-timeline/

US State History Timelines e-Reference Desk's College and 50 State Learning Resource Guide
US History Timeline
http://www.e-referencedesk.com/resources/state-history-timeline/us.html

The BBC United States of America Timeline:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/country_profiles/1230058.stm

Links to Canadian Timelines

A Timeline of Canada by Tim Lambert
http://www.localhistories.org/canadatime.html

Canada History
http://www.canadahistory.com/sections/timelines/timeline.htm

Timeline Canada thru 2000
http://timelines.ws/countries/CANADA_A.HTML

Canadian History Timeline
http://www.history-timelines.org.uk/places-timelines/09-canadian-history-timeline.htm

The BBC Timeline:Canada
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/country_profiles/1203358.stm

Australian Historical Timelines

Wikipedia Timeline of Australian History
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_Australian_history

A Timeline of Australian by Tim Lambert
http://www.localhistories.org/aussietime.html

Australian History Timeline
http://www.history-timelines.org.uk/places-timelines/05-australia-history-timeline.htm

A Timeline of Australian History
http://www.photoshopaustralia.com/australian_history.htm

United Kingdom Historical Timelines

Wikipedia Timeline of British History
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_British_history

The BBC United Kingdom Timeline (begins at 1914)
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/country_profiles/1038820.stm

A Timeline of English History by Tim Lambert
http://www.localhistories.org/timeline.html

A Timeline of Britain
http://www.scaruffi.com/politics/british.html

New Zealand Historical Timelines

New Zealand in History
http://history-nz.org/timeline.html

Wikipedia Timeline of New Zealand
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_New_Zealand_history

New Zealand Disasters Timeline
http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/culture/new-zealand-disasters/timeline

Ireland Timelines Wikipedia Timeline of Irish History
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_Irish_history

Ireland Timeline
http://www.worldatlas.com/webimage/countrys/europe/ireland/ietimeln.htm

A Timeline of Irish History by Time Lambert
http://www.localhistories.org/irishtime.html

Copyright © 2012 Cindy Carman. All rights reserved.
No printed reproduction of this article may be used without the express written permission of the author. Links to this article are encouraged.

Newsletters

Select Newsletter by Issue or Topic:

Genealogy HowTo
Issue: Mar 21, 2012

5 Tips for Overcoming The Curse of The Common Surname

My maiden name is Smith and if that is not common enough my grandfathers also had common first names like Charles, William, and James. As I have struggled to locate my Smith ancestors, I discovered that there are a few strategies that can greatly increase the likelihood that I would actually find them. Applying these 5 tips in your research methods can also increase your success in finding not only your Smiths but those ancestors who do not have common names.

  1. Make a Timeline of Events in Your Ancestor's Life including Locations
  2. Focus On Your Ancestor's Occupation
  3. Include Other Family Members in Your Research
  4. Look for Obituaries, Wills, & Biographies about Your Ancestor, Their Spouses, or Their Children
  5. County Histories & Newspaper

1. Make a Timeline of Events in Your Ancestor's Life including Locations -
It is crucial that you have a fairly good idea of where your ancestor lived during a given time period. These two items of research information become critical when it comes to researching ancestors with common names. Make a timeline of the events in your ancestor's life.

If you are using the free version of Legacy to record your family data, you can automatically create a timeline including the major historical events, if you purchase an add-on piece of software called Genelines. It probably won't have all of the local events that you may need, but it is a quick and easy start for creating a timeline of your ancestor.

Alternatively after downloading the free version of Legacy you could select the option to pay for the upgrade to the deluxe version which has the timeline feature under the "View" menu item.

The book, "History for Genealogists: Using Chronological Time Lines to Find and Understand Your Ancestor" by Judy Jacobson, has a good illustration of how to make a timeline.

Next include in the timeline local and regional events that would have effected your ancestor and his family. For instance, my William Smith ancestor said he was born in Coshocton County, Ohio and that he was born in 1817.

The "Handibook for Genealogists" from Everton Publishers showed that the formation date of Coshocton County was in 1810. The inclusion of the county formation year in his timeline tends to support his statements about his place and date of birth.

Other personal events that you might know about your ancestor and that should be included in this event-place-date timeline are:

  • spouses birth dates and places
  • marriage dates and places
  • births and baptisms of children
  • death dates and places
  • immigration dates

If you are using the family group display chart in the Genelines software, this information will automatically be added for you.

Other local or regional events to add to the timeline would include wars, epidemics, floods, fires, famines, etc. To find chronological listings of local and regional events for timelines, get the book "History for Genealogists" that I mentioned above or visit some of the links I have listed at the end of this article.

Family Tree Maker 2012 Complete software has a timeline display as one of the items under the view menu. I was not able to find if the historical events that are provided with this genealogy program could be added to or changed or if other timelines could be used in the display.

Creating an event-place-date timeline should not be overly elaborate or time consuming as you will be dealing with a relatively short period of time and usually a limited number of places and events for any given ancestor. This timeline can help you identify and locate records about your common name ancestor. The timeline can also help you disambiguate the people who have the same name as your ancestor.

2. Focus On Your Ancestor's Occupation -
Knowing the occupation of your ancestor can be the next most helpful piece of information and can provide distinct advantages when searching an ancestor with a common name. Let's say for instance that you are searching an ancestor with the occupation of farmer. You might believe the farming occupation is not unique enough. I have found that farmers are "tied to the land" meaning they often stayed in the same place for long periods of time and often bought, sold, or bequeathed land to neighbors or relatives. Land transactions leave a great paper trail for genealogists. Other occupations with paper trails include physicians, legislators, judges, lawyers, and military officers.

Many an ancestor may have had a dangerous occupation like engineers, firemen, boiler tender, or brakeman. Althea Douglas points out in her book "Time Traveler's Handbook - A Guide to the Past" that, "Some of the first brotherhoods (early trade unions) were formed among railway workers as a means of securing life insurance." These trade unions regularly published lists of their memberships.

Other dangerous occupations like miners or lumbermen published newsletters for the communities in which they lived and worked. These newsletters often contained several death notices and obituaries in addition to marriage and birth notices. One example of a mining newsletter is found here at MyTrees.com. There are several extractions of the Michigan, Houghton, Daily Mining Gazette in the Books and Records search.

The most difficult occupations to research are those that required frequent travel, for instance, sailors, soldiers, fishermen, migrant laborer, stone masons, etc. Still knowing that an ancestor's occupation was a blacksmith can be helpful in discerning one William Smith who is a blacksmith from another William Smith in the same area who perhaps is a miner. Don't forget that almost all censuses listed the occupation of anyone over a certain age. If you are able to find an ancestor in one of the censuses and you note his occupation, you will more than likely be able to identify him using that occupation in future censuses.

3. Include Other Family Members in Your Research -
Knowing the names of your ancestor's spouse and children or the names of some of his parents or siblings can also be a real help in distinguishing him from others listed in the same area of the same name, especially if the spouse, children, parents, or siblings had a unique name. Most of the research sources that are family based are structured around time periods and distinct geographical areas. For instance, I was searching for the father of Sarah Adams of Virginia who had married a Rice Beadles. I was able to identify that her father was Nathan Adams of Virginia from his will because she was listed as his daughter using her unique married name.

Besides wills, other family based resources are censuses, city directories, vital records, obituaries, pension records, and you also will benefit from searching the family pedigrees here at MyTrees.com

4. Look for Obituaries, Wills, & Biographies -
All of these sources would more than likely include not only birth and death information but also the names of the parents, spouse, and children of the individual. MyTrees.com previously published a newsletter article about "Finding Obituaries Online". If you want to find an obituary online this article can be a tremendous aid.

Don't forget to search for the obituary of your ancestor's spouse, siblings, or children. I have frequently found the parents names of an ancestor by reading the obituary of one of their siblings.

In order to locate an obituary, will, or biography of an ancestor with a common name you will definitely need to know the approximate place and time period. In calculating when your ancestor might have died, it is helpful to know that the life expectancy of a man who had arrived at the age of 20 in the 1850's to 1900's was between 60 and 70 years of age. For females it was slightly higher. By the 1950's the life expectancy for a man of 20 had jumped to between 70 and 80 years of age. During the 1990's it increased again to between 75 and 82 years. These life expectancy figures may appear higher than what you are accustomed to seeing because these numbers do not include the infant mortality numbers in the calculation.

You will want to find at least a "will abstract", since it usually contains more information than just the person's name and date of birth. A County Historical and/or Genealogical Society would be the best place to look for will abstracts or biographies. MyTrees.com has lists of these Societies at this link. When you find the name of the county website, if the link to the website is not provided, find it by using the Society name and state name in a Google search. Amazon also sells a variety of "Will Abstract Books" for numerous locations. Click the book to the right to see some of the "Will Abstract Books" that are available for purchase ---------------->

5. County Histories & Newspaper -
Once again the best place to find County Histories may be on County Historical and/or Genealogical Society website, and MyTrees.com has lists of these Societies at this link. I have found that the fastest way to find county histories is by doing a Google search using the name of the county, the word county and then the name of the state and the word history. So it would look something like this: Indiana Pike County History. County Histories usually list the names and relationships of the first settlers to an area but they often include biographical sketches of the families that lived in the area. Newspapers may include stories about your common name ancestor and sometimes pictures. I helped to research a family whose great grandfather had helped to settle a small town in Utah. They had already located his obituary but had missed the front page news article and picture in the local paper that was printed a few days later. Most libraries have microfiche of the local newspapers and you can often get copies to view through inter-library loan if you don't live in the area where your ancestor died. If you know the month and year in which your ancestor died, try calling the library to see if they will do a search for you.

A really great resource for historical newspaper articles is the NewspaperArchive.com , the largest historical newspaper database online. The site has indexed tens of millions of newspaper pages from 1753 to the present. Every newspaper in the archive is fully searchable by keyword and date, making it easy for you to quickly explore historical content. The search is free but after you have viewed the first couple of articles they will ask for a small monthly fee to see more newspaper articles. You will get to view an image of the actual newspaper with this service.

I have had a good measure of success using these strategies for finding my Smith ancestors. If you have other research tips that you would like to share I would love to hear about them. Send them to feedback@mytrees.com and I will include them in upcoming newsletters; and thanks in advance for sharing.


Links To Free Timeline Forms
Click here for a simple blank timeline form from Familysearch.org

Click here to download Geneosity.com's free "Family Data Sheet and Timeline"

3 Line Timeline Form from Bailey's Free Genealogy Forms


Links to Timelines for US Historical Events
I did not make these links clickable, so you will need to copy and paste the link into your browser's address field.

A Timeline of American History by Tim Lambert
. http://www.localhistories.org/amertime.html

US State History Timelines e-Reference Desk's College and 50 State Learning Resource Guide
US State History Timelines State by State
http://www.e-referencedesk.com/resources/state-history-timeline/

US State History Timelines e-Reference Desk's College and 50 State Learning Resource Guide
US History Timeline
http://www.e-referencedesk.com/resources/state-history-timeline/us.html

The BBC United States of America Timeline:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/country_profiles/1230058.stm

Links to Canadian Timelines

A Timeline of Canada by Tim Lambert
http://www.localhistories.org/canadatime.html

Canada History
http://www.canadahistory.com/sections/timelines/timeline.htm

Timeline Canada thru 2000
http://timelines.ws/countries/CANADA_A.HTML

Canadian History Timeline
http://www.history-timelines.org.uk/places-timelines/09-canadian-history-timeline.htm

The BBC Timeline:Canada
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/country_profiles/1203358.stm

Australian Historical Timelines

Wikipedia Timeline of Australian History
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_Australian_history

A Timeline of Australian by Tim Lambert
http://www.localhistories.org/aussietime.html

Australian History Timeline
http://www.history-timelines.org.uk/places-timelines/05-australia-history-timeline.htm

A Timeline of Australian History
http://www.photoshopaustralia.com/australian_history.htm

United Kingdom Historical Timelines

Wikipedia Timeline of British History
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_British_history

The BBC United Kingdom Timeline (begins at 1914)
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/country_profiles/1038820.stm

A Timeline of English History by Tim Lambert
http://www.localhistories.org/timeline.html

A Timeline of Britain
http://www.scaruffi.com/politics/british.html

New Zealand Historical Timelines

New Zealand in History
http://history-nz.org/timeline.html

Wikipedia Timeline of New Zealand
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_New_Zealand_history

New Zealand Disasters Timeline
http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/culture/new-zealand-disasters/timeline

Ireland Timelines Wikipedia Timeline of Irish History
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_Irish_history

Ireland Timeline
http://www.worldatlas.com/webimage/countrys/europe/ireland/ietimeln.htm

A Timeline of Irish History by Time Lambert
http://www.localhistories.org/irishtime.html

Copyright © 2012 Cindy Carman. All rights reserved.
No printed reproduction of this article may be used without the express written permission of the author. Links to this article are encouraged.

Newsletters

Select Newsletter by Issue or Topic:

Genealogy HowTo
Issue: Mar 21, 2012

5 Tips for Overcoming The Curse of The Common Surname

My maiden name is Smith and if that is not common enough my grandfathers also had common first names like Charles, William, and James. As I have struggled to locate my Smith ancestors, I discovered that there are a few strategies that can greatly increase the likelihood that I would actually find them. Applying these 5 tips in your research methods can also increase your success in finding not only your Smiths but those ancestors who do not have common names.

  1. Make a Timeline of Events in Your Ancestor's Life including Locations
  2. Focus On Your Ancestor's Occupation
  3. Include Other Family Members in Your Research
  4. Look for Obituaries, Wills, & Biographies about Your Ancestor, Their Spouses, or Their Children
  5. County Histories & Newspaper

1. Make a Timeline of Events in Your Ancestor's Life including Locations -
It is crucial that you have a fairly good idea of where your ancestor lived during a given time period. These two items of research information become critical when it comes to researching ancestors with common names. Make a timeline of the events in your ancestor's life.

If you are using the free version of Legacy to record your family data, you can automatically create a timeline including the major historical events, if you purchase an add-on piece of software called Genelines. It probably won't have all of the local events that you may need, but it is a quick and easy start for creating a timeline of your ancestor.

Alternatively after downloading the free version of Legacy you could select the option to pay for the upgrade to the deluxe version which has the timeline feature under the "View" menu item.

The book, "History for Genealogists: Using Chronological Time Lines to Find and Understand Your Ancestor" by Judy Jacobson, has a good illustration of how to make a timeline.

Next include in the timeline local and regional events that would have effected your ancestor and his family. For instance, my William Smith ancestor said he was born in Coshocton County, Ohio and that he was born in 1817.

The "Handibook for Genealogists" from Everton Publishers showed that the formation date of Coshocton County was in 1810. The inclusion of the county formation year in his timeline tends to support his statements about his place and date of birth.

Other personal events that you might know about your ancestor and that should be included in this event-place-date timeline are:

  • spouses birth dates and places
  • marriage dates and places
  • births and baptisms of children
  • death dates and places
  • immigration dates

If you are using the family group display chart in the Genelines software, this information will automatically be added for you.

Other local or regional events to add to the timeline would include wars, epidemics, floods, fires, famines, etc. To find chronological listings of local and regional events for timelines, get the book "History for Genealogists" that I mentioned above or visit some of the links I have listed at the end of this article.

Family Tree Maker 2012 Complete software has a timeline display as one of the items under the view menu. I was not able to find if the historical events that are provided with this genealogy program could be added to or changed or if other timelines could be used in the display.

Creating an event-place-date timeline should not be overly elaborate or time consuming as you will be dealing with a relatively short period of time and usually a limited number of places and events for any given ancestor. This timeline can help you identify and locate records about your common name ancestor. The timeline can also help you disambiguate the people who have the same name as your ancestor.

2. Focus On Your Ancestor's Occupation -
Knowing the occupation of your ancestor can be the next most helpful piece of information and can provide distinct advantages when searching an ancestor with a common name. Let's say for instance that you are searching an ancestor with the occupation of farmer. You might believe the farming occupation is not unique enough. I have found that farmers are "tied to the land" meaning they often stayed in the same place for long periods of time and often bought, sold, or bequeathed land to neighbors or relatives. Land transactions leave a great paper trail for genealogists. Other occupations with paper trails include physicians, legislators, judges, lawyers, and military officers.

Many an ancestor may have had a dangerous occupation like engineers, firemen, boiler tender, or brakeman. Althea Douglas points out in her book "Time Traveler's Handbook - A Guide to the Past" that, "Some of the first brotherhoods (early trade unions) were formed among railway workers as a means of securing life insurance." These trade unions regularly published lists of their memberships.

Other dangerous occupations like miners or lumbermen published newsletters for the communities in which they lived and worked. These newsletters often contained several death notices and obituaries in addition to marriage and birth notices. One example of a mining newsletter is found here at MyTrees.com. There are several extractions of the Michigan, Houghton, Daily Mining Gazette in the Books and Records search.

The most difficult occupations to research are those that required frequent travel, for instance, sailors, soldiers, fishermen, migrant laborer, stone masons, etc. Still knowing that an ancestor's occupation was a blacksmith can be helpful in discerning one William Smith who is a blacksmith from another William Smith in the same area who perhaps is a miner. Don't forget that almost all censuses listed the occupation of anyone over a certain age. If you are able to find an ancestor in one of the censuses and you note his occupation, you will more than likely be able to identify him using that occupation in future censuses.

3. Include Other Family Members in Your Research -
Knowing the names of your ancestor's spouse and children or the names of some of his parents or siblings can also be a real help in distinguishing him from others listed in the same area of the same name, especially if the spouse, children, parents, or siblings had a unique name. Most of the research sources that are family based are structured around time periods and distinct geographical areas. For instance, I was searching for the father of Sarah Adams of Virginia who had married a Rice Beadles. I was able to identify that her father was Nathan Adams of Virginia from his will because she was listed as his daughter using her unique married name.

Besides wills, other family based resources are censuses, city directories, vital records, obituaries, pension records, and you also will benefit from searching the family pedigrees here at MyTrees.com

4. Look for Obituaries, Wills, & Biographies -
All of these sources would more than likely include not only birth and death information but also the names of the parents, spouse, and children of the individual. MyTrees.com previously published a newsletter article about "Finding Obituaries Online". If you want to find an obituary online this article can be a tremendous aid.

Don't forget to search for the obituary of your ancestor's spouse, siblings, or children. I have frequently found the parents names of an ancestor by reading the obituary of one of their siblings.

In order to locate an obituary, will, or biography of an ancestor with a common name you will definitely need to know the approximate place and time period. In calculating when your ancestor might have died, it is helpful to know that the life expectancy of a man who had arrived at the age of 20 in the 1850's to 1900's was between 60 and 70 years of age. For females it was slightly higher. By the 1950's the life expectancy for a man of 20 had jumped to between 70 and 80 years of age. During the 1990's it increased again to between 75 and 82 years. These life expectancy figures may appear higher than what you are accustomed to seeing because these numbers do not include the infant mortality numbers in the calculation.

You will want to find at least a "will abstract", since it usually contains more information than just the person's name and date of birth. A County Historical and/or Genealogical Society would be the best place to look for will abstracts or biographies. MyTrees.com has lists of these Societies at this link. When you find the name of the county website, if the link to the website is not provided, find it by using the Society name and state name in a Google search. Amazon also sells a variety of "Will Abstract Books" for numerous locations. Click the book to the right to see some of the "Will Abstract Books" that are available for purchase ---------------->

5. County Histories & Newspaper -
Once again the best place to find County Histories may be on County Historical and/or Genealogical Society website, and MyTrees.com has lists of these Societies at this link. I have found that the fastest way to find county histories is by doing a Google search using the name of the county, the word county and then the name of the state and the word history. So it would look something like this: Indiana Pike County History. County Histories usually list the names and relationships of the first settlers to an area but they often include biographical sketches of the families that lived in the area. Newspapers may include stories about your common name ancestor and sometimes pictures. I helped to research a family whose great grandfather had helped to settle a small town in Utah. They had already located his obituary but had missed the front page news article and picture in the local paper that was printed a few days later. Most libraries have microfiche of the local newspapers and you can often get copies to view through inter-library loan if you don't live in the area where your ancestor died. If you know the month and year in which your ancestor died, try calling the library to see if they will do a search for you.

A really great resource for historical newspaper articles is the NewspaperArchive.com , the largest historical newspaper database online. The site has indexed tens of millions of newspaper pages from 1753 to the present. Every newspaper in the archive is fully searchable by keyword and date, making it easy for you to quickly explore historical content. The search is free but after you have viewed the first couple of articles they will ask for a small monthly fee to see more newspaper articles. You will get to view an image of the actual newspaper with this service.

I have had a good measure of success using these strategies for finding my Smith ancestors. If you have other research tips that you would like to share I would love to hear about them. Send them to feedback@mytrees.com and I will include them in upcoming newsletters; and thanks in advance for sharing.


Links To Free Timeline Forms
Click here for a simple blank timeline form from Familysearch.org

Click here to download Geneosity.com's free "Family Data Sheet and Timeline"

3 Line Timeline Form from Bailey's Free Genealogy Forms


Links to Timelines for US Historical Events
I did not make these links clickable, so you will need to copy and paste the link into your browser's address field.

A Timeline of American History by Tim Lambert
. http://www.localhistories.org/amertime.html

US State History Timelines e-Reference Desk's College and 50 State Learning Resource Guide
US State History Timelines State by State
http://www.e-referencedesk.com/resources/state-history-timeline/

US State History Timelines e-Reference Desk's College and 50 State Learning Resource Guide
US History Timeline
http://www.e-referencedesk.com/resources/state-history-timeline/us.html

The BBC United States of America Timeline:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/country_profiles/1230058.stm

Links to Canadian Timelines

A Timeline of Canada by Tim Lambert
http://www.localhistories.org/canadatime.html

Canada History
http://www.canadahistory.com/sections/timelines/timeline.htm

Timeline Canada thru 2000
http://timelines.ws/countries/CANADA_A.HTML

Canadian History Timeline
http://www.history-timelines.org.uk/places-timelines/09-canadian-history-timeline.htm

The BBC Timeline:Canada
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/country_profiles/1203358.stm

Australian Historical Timelines

Wikipedia Timeline of Australian History
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_Australian_history

A Timeline of Australian by Tim Lambert
http://www.localhistories.org/aussietime.html

Australian History Timeline
http://www.history-timelines.org.uk/places-timelines/05-australia-history-timeline.htm

A Timeline of Australian History
http://www.photoshopaustralia.com/australian_history.htm

United Kingdom Historical Timelines

Wikipedia Timeline of British History
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_British_history

The BBC United Kingdom Timeline (begins at 1914)
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/country_profiles/1038820.stm

A Timeline of English History by Tim Lambert
http://www.localhistories.org/timeline.html

A Timeline of Britain
http://www.scaruffi.com/politics/british.html

New Zealand Historical Timelines

New Zealand in History
http://history-nz.org/timeline.html

Wikipedia Timeline of New Zealand
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_New_Zealand_history

New Zealand Disasters Timeline
http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/culture/new-zealand-disasters/timeline

Ireland Timelines Wikipedia Timeline of Irish History
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_Irish_history

Ireland Timeline
http://www.worldatlas.com/webimage/countrys/europe/ireland/ietimeln.htm

A Timeline of Irish History by Time Lambert
http://www.localhistories.org/irishtime.html

Copyright © 2012 Cindy Carman. All rights reserved.
No printed reproduction of this article may be used without the express written permission of the author. Links to this article are encouraged.

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