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Differentiating between people with identical names in records

Every generation has popular names and some names like John remain popular across generations. It can be difficult to know if this particular John Smith is the one you’re searching for. Here is a list of tips I hope can help you find the correct person.

  • Preliminarily rule out anyone who was born 6+ years earlier or 6+ years later than your target person. You may have to eventually put these people back into the candidate pool, however, because a person’s birth year in a record pre-1940 can sometimes be off by 6+ years.
  • Check if the parents or siblings of the one you’re searching for live nearby if you’re looking at census records. For most of human history, people usually remained near where they were born and/or raised.
  • Check to see if the person has any children with the same name as one of your target person’s parents.
  • Search for a marriage, death, or church records to confirm their parents.
  • Search for military records. Draft records list address and next of kin.
  • If you know where the person is buried check the cemetery for the graves of your target person’s parents and siblings.
  • Search for newspaper articles.
  • Search online for a family tree created by someone else. You shouldn’t believe a family tree is correct unless the information in the tree has been backed up by good sources, but the tree might be able to help you find more records.

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