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Genealogy Tips: Searching for Ancestors with Common Names like Smith & Jones

What do you do if you're searching for an ancestor with a common name like John Smith or Bill Jones? When you enter a common name like that into a search box, you get back so many returns that it seems like an overwhelming task to weed through them all, searching for the record or newspaper article that is about your target ancestor.

This article shows you some tips and tricks to find these difficult ancestors with common names.

Use Nicknames, Physical Characteristics, etc., in Your Search

When an extended family has chosen to name many offspring with similar or identical names, sharpen your search by looking for nicknames and other appellations (such as Senior and Junior), along with search terms that denote a particular characteristic of your ancestor, in an attempt to find that one specific individual you're searching for.

Nicknames and Distinctive Characteristics

If you think we have a hard time straightening out complicated families, so did our ancestors. One of the ways they avoided confusion was to give people nicknames. The following comical 1876 newspaper article illustrates a breadth of creative nicknames.

A "respectable-looking old gentleman from the Eastern States" was trying to find a man named Smith in Austin, Nevada. The boy assisting him wanted to know which Smith the man was looking for and made many helpful suggestions, including: Big Smith, Little Smith, Three-fingered Smith, Bottle-nose Smith, Cock-eye Smith, Six-toed Smith, Mush-head Smith, One-legged Smith, Bow-legged Smith, and many more.

The old gentleman retorted: "My son, the Smith I am in search of possesses to his name none of the heathenish prefixes you have mentioned. His name is simply John Smith."

To which the boy promptly responded: "All them fellows is named John!"


Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 2 June 1876, page 3

Senior and Junior

A common genealogical trap is thinking that "Seniors" and "Juniors" are related. From a historical perspective, senior means older, or of an advanced age, which is exactly how our ancestors interpreted the designation. Two people with the same name, one a senior and one a junior, were not necessarily related.
  • Senior: indicates that there were two or more persons by the same name living in a community, with the senior being older than the junior.
  • Junior: indicates that there was another person by the same name, who was older than the person under discussion.
Distinctive Physical Characteristics

As seen in the humorous account of the many John Smiths of Austin, Nevada, people are often associated with their distinctive physical characteristics, whether it be their hair color, weight or height.

Titles and Initials

If someone held a position of honor, the title or the given (first name) might be ignored or abbreviated. Here are some examples, which you could incorporate into a search:
  • Gen. Smith
  • Col. E. Smith
  • Rev. Dr. Smith

Charleston Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), 7 September 1849, page 2

If you are searching for an ancestor with a common name, make note if you ever run across that ancestor's nickname, title, or distinctive characteristic—then incorporate that information into your search. You just might get lucky and find that individual needle in the haystack of common names.

So don't despair if you're trying to find information about an ancestor with a common name. Yes, your first search may have turned up so many results that you felt hopeless trying to weed through them, looking for information about your target ancestor. But use the tips and tricks discussed in this article, and you just might make that family history discovery you've spent years searching for!

[Editor's note: this article was excerpted from a longer, forthcoming article by Mary Harrell-Sesniak that will soon be posted on the GenealogyBank Blog.]