When you’re working on common surnames, it doesn’t take very long for things to get awfully confusing. This is especially true if you are working in big cities where there may be hundreds of unrelated people sharing the same last name. And in our case, those families with common surnames had no idea of how they would deepen our frustration by giving their children common first names like John, James, William and Mary. Fortunately, when I took my first genealogy class (way back in the last century), the instructor wisely taught us to keep track of all findings - even when the people found in the records appear not to be related to your family. She suggested keeping a “Maybe Related” file and I can tell you it was one of the best methods I ever learned. Before we had the wonderful convenience of indexed census records on our home computer screens, we had to go to a library or an archive and tediously search through page after page of names. Frankly, I was impatient to zero in and copy only information that pertained to known relatives, but I’m glad I followed the instructor’s teachings. I’m not sure I’d have the patience to do it now, but I made an index card for every Dennis, Dyer, Kelly, Miller, Muller and Nelson that I ran across in census schedules, books and other records. It wasn’t feasible to copy every piece of information on every record, but I did copy names, ages, occupations, birthplaces or other identifying information, along with the name of the record in which the name was found, the page number, the name of library or archive in which it was found and the date it was found. In that way, I’m able to go back to a record if I ever need it again. It sure beats trying to remember where I saw something and wasting precious time wading through collections for a second or third time. In recent years, I’ve transcribed these index cards into lists and spreadsheets on my computer. I’ve also learned to keep track of people who may or may not be related when I search records on Ancestry.com and other internet sites. This file has helped me more than once to figure out who is, and who is not mine. Keeping track of same-named ladies and gentlemen turned out to be enormously helpful when I went to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City earlier this month. As I looked for our James Miller in vital records, I found several possible candidates, but looking back on my “Maybe Related” file I was able to see how most of my new finds couldn’t possibly be him because of significant discrepancies in age, birthplace, family composition, or death dates. There’s one James Miller who looks pretty suspicious, however. His age matches, his wife’s name is right, but everything we have says our ancestor was German born. The enumerator noted that this newly-found fellow was Irish born. I copied relevant information anyway and hopefully one day soon, we will be able to sort it all out and know which one might be our ancestor. If you have common name mysteries in your family, I highly recommend the “Maybe Related” filing system on your computer or even the index card method. Call me “old fashioned” but I still love to pull out the index cards and move them around and analyze them in different ways. As we add to these files, individual and family patterns will emerge and those hidden behind common names will finally reveal themselves. At least sometimes they do!
How do you deal with the “maybe relateds” in your files? Share your tips with us in the comments section below.
-Taken from ancestry.com.