3 Tips for Researching an Ancestor With a Common Name

hello“How do I find the parents of my paternal great-grandfather John Mack ‘Maxie’ Smith and my maternal great-great-grandfather Samuel S. Roberts when they are both such common names?” Kate Keller, blog reader (and distant cousin), recently asked me that. It’s a situation that many of us have in our genealogy. Here are my tips for dealing with a common name.

1. Identify Your Ancestor by More Than a Name

When you’re trying to find the parents of your ancestor, it helps to know which person is your ancestor. When you’re dealing with common names, you need more than just the ancestor’s name to identify him or her. Research your ancestor and find as many ways as you can to identify or describe that person. This includes things like:

  • Age/birthdate
  • Birthplace
  • Spouses’ names
  • Childrens’ names
  • Religion
  • Ethnicity
  • Occupation
  • Residence

This might mean taking a pause on trying to identify his parents and concentrate instead on identifying him. The more ways you can identify your ancestor, the better you’ll be able to tell him apart from the other people with the same name.

2. Establish the FAN Club

The FAN club (the Friends, Associates, and Neighbors) helps ground our ancestor and puts him in context with his surroundings. These are the people he associates with. Some of them could turn out to be related. Others can help point us toward the relatives. (Here’s a post on how researching people with a completely different surname revealed a maiden name and added a generation to my family tree.)

3. Research the FANs

Research those people with whom he’s associating. Who is he buying land from? Who are the godparents of his children? Who is living nearby in the census and in city directories?

By the way, when I say “research the FANs,” I don’t mean do a quick search on Ancestry to see if anyone’s family tree connects them to your ancestor. Research those people as if they were your ancestor. Find out all you can about them. In doing so, you could turn up the answer you’ve been seeking.

Suggestions for Researching Common Names

Kate is trying to identify the parents of John Mack “Maxie” Smith and Samuel S. Roberts. Even though you’re working with a common name, that ancestor isn’t associating with everyone with that name. Rather than researching all of the Smiths or all of the Roberts in the county, focus first on the Smiths and the Roberts that they are associating with. Did John buy land from or sell land to any other Smiths? What other Roberts were living near Samuel? Focus on them first.

Keep an eye out for people with different surnames who keep appearing in the FAN club. They might be related.

One last tip: Be willing to expand where you’re searching. Even if John Smith and Samuel Roberts lived their entire lives in one county, their parents might not have. I have instances in my own family where my ancestor stayed put, but the parents moved west with other children. (Yet another reason to really research those FAN club members: They might have moved and taken the parents with them!)

The key is to be methodical. Have a firm identity in place for your ancestor. (That means more than just his name.) See who else he’s associating with. When you’re dealing with common names, slow and steady really does win the race.


Researching an ancestor with a common name can be tough. Here are some tips to keep those people straight and find who you're looking for.

Posted: October 6, 2016.

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  • I even researched the Groomsmen in my Grandparents wedding trying to find information on my grandfather’s parentage. He had absolutely no kin at a Society wedding in Washington DC in 1914. I am no closer today than I was 25 years ago. He was one age when he enlisted in the service in NY and another when he got out in Virginia. His service records were part of the St. Louis disaster.

  • You have so much knowledge on researching.. Will you contact me regarding finding death records in Indian Territory, Chickasaw Nation before statehood of Oklahoma in 1907. Will compensate you for your assistance…I have looked for six years, am exhausted…

    • Hi, Betty. I’m not doing any client research right now, but I do have a suggestion for you. Ask yourself why are you looking for a death record. What information are you hoping to find? Is there another type of record that could give you the same information? Since the Indian Territory wasn’t keeping civil death records until Oklahoma statehood in 1908, you’ll have to rely upon things like obituaries, tombstones, church records, probate records, etc.

      • The Muskogee, OK has the Dawes roll records. you might try contacting the Genealogy Dept at the Muskogee Library in Muskogee, OK.
        Have you tried the Chickasaw Nation?