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Searching for Common Surnames

By Juliana Smith

I was watching the news this morning and an ad came on advertising a furniture sale for “National Smith Day.” Wow, why was I not apprised of this holiday? Was there a parade? Surely, the news media is slipping. They should have been all over this.

Apparently I missed the actual celebration since it was on January 6th, but as a Smith (albeit by marriage), I appreciate the gesture. After all, it’s not every surname that gets a furniture sale in its honor. (Or is it? Note to self: Check to see when “National Szucs Day” falls this year. We need a new sofa.)

Not to seem ungrateful, as a family historian I feel that a little guidance through the bazillion or so Smiths in U.S. records will be more useful than say a 20% discount on a new ottoman. So in the spirit of “National Smith Day,” I offer these tips for locating your Smiths (or Browns, or Kellys, or Johnsons, etc.).

Remember Your Ancestor Was an Individual
Your ancestor was a unique individual, despite his or her common moniker. Yes, there may have been a boatload of James Smiths in his city, but how many of them were about his age? Had a wife named Martha? Attended his church? The more you learn about your James Smith, the easier he’ll be to pick out of the crowd.

I like to create profiles for my commonly-named relatives (and it doesn’t hurt for the non-so-commonly-named either). Gathering all the records I have, I extract everything I know about him or her and condense it into a summary of sorts. I use the profile to formulate my searches and review it often when I’m brainstorming new research avenues. Here’s one I created for James Kelly.

Use Family Structure
You’ll notice on that the profile I included the names and birth dates (estimated wherever necessary) for his parents, siblings, spouse, and children. This will help me identify the family group in census records, and is particularly useful when working with pre-1850 censuses. Using the estimated dates can help me project how old family members would be in each census year. I used this chart to help keep track.

When I was looking for James living with his parents and siblings in 1830, I was able to make a template of sorts that predicted which columns in that census would have tallies. I searched for his father James using both Kelly and Kelley surnames (while they weren’t creative with given names, apparently they were flexible with the spelling of their last name), going directly to the 1830 census. Using the template, I found a family that very closely matches the family structure of my Kelly family. The yellow line is my template, and the green line is a family I found in the 13th Ward of New York City.

Now I can go to that census entry and figure out who’s who. Since the census page is not very clean, after verifying the indexed items, I used the printable index page and matched the people up with my spreadsheet.

While I have two extra girls in the household, it’s quite possible that they died young and I’m just not aware of them. There was a cholera epidemic in 1832 that killed 278 people in the 13th Ward by early August of that year, so it’s possible the girls were among them. This family was also particularly hard hit by consumption (tuberculosis). On James profile we can see that at least two of his siblings died of the disease, as did his daughter and a niece who is not on this profile.

Now that I have a possible match, I’ll be turning to church and other records to see if I can confirm my theory that this is indeed my Kelly family. There is a very old Catholic parish right in the area where I’m hoping the family left records.

Follow Your Ancestor with Chronologies
One of the best ways to identify your ancestor is to know where he lived. Many records include a location or address. Think about vital records you have, city directories, census records, military records (like draft registrations), and even home sources that list an address and help you to place your ancestor in a particular place at a particular time.

Using these records and arranging them chronologically allows you to follow your ancestors through the years. Once you have a framework, it’s easier to zero in on where he or she was in the gaps. I create timelines for my families and have found them particularly helpful with my Kellys, Millers, Smiths, and other common surnames.

Get to Know His FAN Club
Yes, you’re not the only one in your ancestor’s fan club. FAN stands for Friends, Associates, and Neighbors. Your ancestor’s life was most likely not a solitary life. Community played a huge role. The people that were chosen as witnesses to marriages, sponsors of children, business partners, and executors of wills were typically not picked up on the streets to be a part of your ancestor’s life. They were most likely chosen because of a connection. Your ancestor may have chosen where the family settled based on the neighbors. There may be a connection there as well.

Make a list of the people you see interacting with your ancestor and seek out their records. Sometimes they can even be used to help identify your ancestors. For example, you may find their neighbors traveling to the U.S. with them in passenger lists. Or perhaps the same man who was a witness at your ancestor’s marriage in one state, shows up living near your ancestor after he’s moved to a new state. That person can be part of the supporting evidence that you have the right John Smith.

In addition, researching the people in your ancestor’s life may reveal that the ties go beyond community and that they are part of the extended family.


Juliana has been writing and editing Ancestry.com newsletters for more than thirteen years. She’s looking forward to meeting some of you at the DuPage County (Illinois) Genealogical Society’s 37th Annual Conference in St. Charles, Illinois on Saturday, February 25. Click here to register. 

Other articles in the 15 January 2012 Weekly Discovery: 

5 Ways to Win the Name Game

Family History Tip: Siblings Death Records 

Photo Corner 

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