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Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been telling you about my efforts to update my online tree, and more recently my Family Tree Maker 2012 file, in addition to updating records, as I go along, I’m trying to add photographs where I have them. Recently, I was looking through some pictures that had come from the collections of my father’s aunt. They’re all electronic and all were given the generic label of ”AuntSophie001,” ”AuntSophie0012,” etc., citing that they came from her collection.
I wanted to rename them to make it easier to identify the files. Browsing through them I could immediately recognize my grandmother and Aunt Sophie, both of whom I knew very well. Even though I never met their brother, Uncle Hank, in some photos I recognized him because of the resemblance to him in other pictures, and sometimes it helped because I knew the family structure. Although I don’t have many photographs of him when he was young, I know that he’s the boy in the funeral picture taken in front of his mother’s casket because of the context.
Identifying your ancestors in records can be like that. We need to use context, family structure, and other clues in place of the visual image. Even if your ancestor’s name was John Smith, he was unique when it comes to the places he lived, the people who surrounded him, the dates of events in his life, and what he did for a living. So it stands to reason that, the more you know about these things, the easier it will be to identify his records.
Create a Profile
Those of you who have been reading my columns for a while are probably aware that I like to create reports and charts, rearranging the facts I’ve found on records in ways that make more sense to me. And while I’m a huge fan of software and online trees, when it comes to this part of my research process, I’m kind of “old school.” I don’t want the pre-populated report. I want to start from scratch surrounded by records, and extract the clues from every source available.
Back in July I wrote about timelines, where I take every record I’ve found and arrange them chronologically. Then I go further, adding estimates based on facts, and other important dates that impact research. Another tool I use are profiles, like this one below I created for one relative who’s given me a run for my money.
While the timeline is a more detailed list of events, the profile gathers identifiers and things I know about the person. It’s more of a summary than a timeline, and I use it when I’m brainstorming my next steps, crafting a search online, or sorting out the many, many James Kellys that were in New York City in the mid-19th century. While it may seem daunting to search for such a common name in the country’s most populous city, all of the details in his profile, when used together, transform him into a unique individual that stands out in the crowd. Here are some things you’ll want to include in your profile.
The basic details found on so many records can help identify your ancestor, especially when used together. Age (exact or estimated), occupation, place of birth, and ethnic background can help you distinguish your ancestor from people with similar characteristics. My James was about the same age as another gentleman in the same part of New York City, and they even both had wives named Margaret. But the other gentleman was a baker (and later alderman for the city) and my James was in the artificial flower business before turning his attention to the real estate opportunities in the fast-growing city.
The key to my success in my Kelly line was researching the siblings of my direct ancestor, who was actually James’ sister Catherine. Since she died at age 26 leaving very few records, it was by knowing the names of extended family and researching all of her siblings that I got to know so much about the family. The family structure allowed me to identify her father in the records of the New York Emigrant Savings Bank. His account in the “Test books” listed the names of all of his children who were still living, along with his wife’s maiden name and the fact that she had died by that date, the fact that they had immigrated to the U.S. through Halifax, and his place of origin in Ireland.
Addresses can be found in census records beginning in 1880, city directories, vital records, probates, obituaries, and so many other records. Collect them and include them in your profile. Placing your ancestor in a particular place is a great way to make sure you’ve got the right person.
Unusual Given or Middle Names
Two generations of my family named a son Edwin Brough Dyer. While we know the first Edwin’s mother’s name, his father remains a mystery. (The Dyer surname was one he adopted from his step-father.) Since Brough is not your typical middle name, we’re hoping that researching families in the area with that surname may help us uncover a link to his father’s family or perhaps a relative further back on his mother’s side. You’ll often find cases where a mother’s maiden name is used as a middle name for a child as well.
Another interesting note from that family is that the first Edwin also named three sons Alfred, all of whom sadly died very young. They really wanted a child named Alfred. Was there a relative in the family named Alfred who they were very fond of, or did they just really like the name? I suspect maybe the former, so when I’m researching that family, I keep the Alfreds in mind.
Religion played a very big role for many of our ancestors. Their community often centered around religious institutions and organizations. Determine what churches were in the areas where your ancestor lived and what communities they served. Sometimes congregations had strong ethnic backgrounds so you may find your ancestor attended one that was a bit further away to worship with people with a shared background. Get familiar with the names of other people in your ancestor’s congregation, as you may find them turning up in other records as witnesses, sponsors, or business associates.
Your ancestor’s autograph can come in handy as well. A comparison of your ancestor's signature on separate records can help ascertain if you are looking at the same person.
There are many factors that made your ancestor an individual. Gather them up and create a profile for the people in your tree. Those profiles will not only help you identify your ancestor in records, it can determine the next direction your research will take. And as an added bonus, it will form the framework for your family story that’s just waiting to be told.
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 Pennsylvania Family History Day in Exton, Pennsylvania. To see upcoming events where Ancestry.com will have a presence, click here.
Other articles in the 23 October 2011 Weekly Discovery: