Common Names: How Does a Family History Researcher Find the Right Man (or Woman)?

RecordClick Family History Researchers know how to locate ancestors when there are common names

RecordClick Family History Researchers know how to locate ancestors when there are common names

Will the real Mrs. My Ancestor please stand up? This RecordClick professional genealogist wishes sleuthing through old records was that easy for the family history researcher. I’ve had my share of headaches trying to keep various relatives in my ancestor search straight deciphering and organizing common first names, common last names, ages and residences.

One quiet afternoon, recently, I was perusing the 1900 U.S. Census as only a family history researcher can and wondering how many people with the same name could I find on a page. Knowing settlement patterns, I selected “Jacob Hofer” in Hutchinson County, South Dakota and found well over a dozen. That creates a situation for the family history researcher where keeping individuals and families straight is a challenge, to say the least.

When working with families, the family history researcher needs to keep two things in mind – actually it’s more than that, but we’ll start with two. First, use the census and work backwards. Second, decisions have to be made as to who isn’t the desired ancestor. Then, a decision has to be made as to who is the ancestor in question. In some circles, it’s known as the process of elimination. Information helps with the process – and the more information the family history researcher has, the better.

To make things easier for this family history researcher, I thought I’d see if I could find the father of one certain Jacob P. Hofer. In the 1910 U.S. Census, State of South Dakota; Hutchinson County; Silver Lake Precinct; ED 239; Sheet 1B; Dwelling 11; Family 11; Lines 59-64:Line     Name                          Relation           Age      Marital        Children

59        Hofer, Jacob P.            Head               24        M4

60        Hofer, Rebecca           Wife                 25        M4                 3 born – 3 survive

61        Hofer, Joseph              Son                  3           S

62        Hofer, Katie                 Daughter         2          S

63        Hofer, Jacob                Son                  11/12    S

64        Hofer, Anna                 Mother            71        Widow            13 born – 8 survive

Of major help to the family history researcher is the fact that Jacob’s mother, Anna, is living with him. She is 71, older, and is the mother of 13 children, eight of whom survive. The next step for the family history researcher is to go back to the 1900 U.S. Census. Jacob P. could be in one of two families. The Jacob Hofer in the first family is 13, whereas the Jakob Hofer in the second family is 14.

State of South Dakota; Hutchinson County; Township 100 Range 57; ED 192; Sheet 2A; Dwelling 15; Family 16; Lines 3-12:

Line     Name              Relation           Birthday          Age      Marital    Children

3          Hofer, John      Head                Jan. 1857         43        M21

4          Hofer, Anna     Wife                Oct. 1858        41        M21         10 Born – 8 Survive

5          “          Kath.    Daughter         Feb. 1880        20       S

6          “          John     Son                  July 1881         18        S

7          “          Rebec. Daughter         June 1883        16       S

8          “          Jacob   Son                  Apr. 1886        13        S

9          “          Paul     Son                  Sep. 1887        11        S

10        “          Joseph Son                  Jan. 1890         9         S

11        “          Sam’l   Son                  Apr. 1892         7          S

12        “          Anna    Daughter         Dec. 1895        4         S

State of South Dakota; Hutchinson County; Township 100 Range 56; ED 182; Sheet 3A; Dwelling 37; Family 37; Lines 11-14:

11        Hofer, Paul      Head                Mar. 1841       59        M41

12        Hofer, Anna     Wife                Dec. 1838        61        M41       13 Born – 8 Survive

13        Elisb’t  Daughter                      Jan. 1883         17        S

14        Jakob   Son                                Dec. 1885        14        S

Family history researcher: Who is the father of Jacob Hofer? Both Jacobs are similar in age, less than six months apart. Both have a mother named Anna who has eight surviving children. How can people be eliminated? We compare the families:

  • The two mothers, Anna Hofer, are quite different in their ages. Anna (John) is 41 and Anna (Paul) in 61.
  • The two couples have been been married far different lengths of time. Anna and John have been married 21 years, whereas Anna and Paul have been together 41 years.
  • Although both Annas have the same number of surviving children, Anna (Paul) gave birth to 13 while Anna (John) gave birth to ten. In 1900, Anna (John) is 41 with all eight children living at home. She is too young.

My conclusion: Anna (Paul) is 61, the correct age and the number of children she had matches the 1910 U.S. Census. Jakob’s name is spelled differently in each census, but that could be attributed to the German spelling of the name or the census enumerator. More ancestor research should be done, but it is likely that Jacob P. Hofer’s father is Paul and Paul died between 1900 and 1910. Additionally, while Jacob and his sister, Elisabeth, weren’t born until after 1880, Paul and Anna had older children. The couple could be used to find other children in the 1880 U.S. Census.

I am going to add two notes here for the family history researcher about working with German families and naming practices. Some families in the ancestor searcher followed the idea of naming the first son after the father and the first daughter after the mother. Other families, in the family tree search, especially as time went on, may have been less structured in selecting the given names for their children. Secondly, with the abundance of Jacobs, Johns, Pauls, Davids, Rebeccas, Elizabeths, Annas, and Katharines, a family history researcher will find that middle names became an important identification tool. If a middle initial is used, it can be a valuable sorting resource in your ancestor search.

Working with families and similar names can be confusing for the family history researcher. If you get stuck and need help, a RecordClick professional genealogist can assist you. We will identify family members in your ancestor search and organize your family tree research. Assistance is also available in creating and publishing your family history.