Thursday, April 24, 2014

When you have a mess

Blog reader Cameron emailed me detailing a genealogical dilemma he is working on.  In a nutshell, the family is a total mess.  When he consults the family trees that others have posted no one agrees on anything.  Cameron has people with common names, the same collateral line surnames popping in and out and his ancestors are doing odd things.  “It is all so bizarre and it seems like the more info I find, the more it adds to the mystery but doesn’t give ANY answers, just more questions!”

Whenever I have a total mess of a family the very first thing I do is take a step back. Many times looking at what other people have on the family will only lead you astray. You need to focus on what you have and what facts you have actual documentation for. Basically, start over from scratch like you have never seen this family before. Start with what you know and then work toward what you don’t know. Revisit every piece of evidence you have (documents) and look at them again. Are there clues you missed the first time around?

Another thing that will trip you up is not realizing that perhaps there is more than one person in that area during that time that had the same name as your person of interest. When things look like they just aren’t fitting together right that is the first thing I consider. You said, “Why would an old man quickly marry women, move children around, change names, etc?” You also said, “Some of the children were boarded with various families, almost passed around the neighborhoods to similar families.” And you also said “All children’s names were changed too, so some changed back when they were 18, others just disappeared (could have died, but SO many?)”  I would definitely be thinking that there might be more than one person with the same name (perhaps several people in this family have “doubles”).

Remember, a person can’t be in two places at the same time, a person can’t be married to two different people at the same time (well, they aren’t supposed to), a person can’t do things before he were born and he can’t do things after he is dead.  This is another reason that it is very important to have good estimations for dates of birth, marriage and death based on the collective evidence you have when you don’ t have direct evidence for precise dates.  This will help you rule people in and out.

Timelines and spreadsheets can help you organize all of this data while you are evaluating it. If you have your data on a spreadsheet, you can sort by column(s) and sometimes this will help you rule someone in or out based on whether they could have been at a certain place at a certain time or if they would have been the right age to have done something. Pretty soon a pattern will emerge that there were in fact two (or more) people with the same name.

The key to solving the puzzle is starting over with no preconceived notions and good organizational skills.


Copyright © 2014 Michele Simmons Lewis


  1. Again, I agree with you that these are same name people. I have that problem with two sets of families. I have a bazillion Moses Pullens and a bazillion Simeon and Seaborn Walters. It starts at the top of a line then all their brothers each have a son that they name after him and those sons name theirs after the uncle or the brothers and then the sons after that do the same and next thing you know, you have 20 Moses Pullens all living in one locale. All with different ages, different wives, different occupations and so forth.

    The problem I have is how to sort it all out. How do you know for sure which one belongs where? What if there are some you don't know about and then suddenly they pop up?

    For example, let's say we have an 1833 tax record in Georgia and it has two John Smiths. I know there were 3 and possibly 4 John Smiths in the area. How do you figure out which John it is? That's what keeps me awake at 3 in the morning. lol!

    1. I had to differentiate between three Mathew Pattons in Augusta County, VA that lived there at the same time. Let's just say, it took me awhile. I used a spreadsheet and put every single bit of data on it I could. There happens to be a deed index book for Augusta County. I had something like 192 entries on my spreadsheet just from deeds!