there are 31,139 John Smiths in the 1900 US census — and your ancestor,
unfortunately, is one of them. How will you ever find the right guy? We
all have ancestors with common names. And if you don't think you have
any, as soon as you start hunting for a particular person, you'll find
out just how common his name was.
Not to worry. You can take these three steps to ensure the John Smith in a given record is your John Smith:
1. Learn as much identifying information about your ancestor as possible.
2. Anchor him with someone who has an uncommon name.
3. Make a chronology of his life events.
how it works for your John Smith: He lived in Illinois, limiting the
possibilities to, 1,719. You're sure he was in Chicago, Cook County —
only a mere 537 John Smiths listed there. Lookin' better. Narrowing the
search even more, you enter his birth year of 1867. Only 13 match. But
the clincher to identifying your John Smith is his wife's name:
Looking at another example, the surname Riggs
ranked 886th of the 1,000 most common US surnames in the 1990 census.
But finding just two or three John Riggses living in Accomack Co., Va.,
in the 1700s made the name common in my research.
I used all
three strategies to help me sort them out. First, I found my “anchor”
for the John I wanted in his wife's rather unusual name, Jemima
Melichop. Anytime John appeared in a record mentioning Jemima or the
Melichop family, I knew I had the right John Riggs.
strategy was learning more about each of the John Riggses than they
probably knew themselves. I did this by searching original land and tax
records. No two men own the same property at once, or are taxed on the
same horses, cattle and watches. So the details in these records become
like fingerprints for a person with a common name.
made a chronological table of events for each John Riggs and
scrutinized all the dates. I feel pretty comfortable concluding that
one of them, who died in 1830, almost certainly wasn't the same man
taking someone to court 11 years later.
From the May 2008 Family Tree Magazine