Genealogy Research Tips – Dealing with Common Name Searches

RecordClick genealogy ancestry service research for common names

What do you do when your ancestor’s name is “John Smith,” or “Mary Jones?” You’re going to have to wade through a LOT of common names when you are tracing ancestry. According to board certified genealogist Joan Shurtliff, “Like a good detective, I’m not satisfied until I find a body.” In this article, Joan tackles genealogical research involving ancestors with common names, giving readers some terrific genealogy researcher resources to help you trace family history. (photo credit Joan Shurtliff)

The tombstone, located in Liberty Cemetery, Upland Township, Dickinson County, Kansas, has two names on it. It reads:

Top: Simon W. Miller; Died November 23, 1884; Aged 13 ys 11 ms 23 ds.

Bottom:William H. Miller; Died November 7, 1884; Aged 52 ys 11 ms unreadable ds.

    ~(photo credit Joan Shurtliff)

When I started researching my family genealogy I felt lucky. I didn’t have to contend with many common last names. Note that “many” is not an absolute – there are always a few that come up. I figured finding information about them should be a piece of cake. As many a family genealogist (with a knowing smile) can tell me – that’s not necessarily true. Combine that fact with the stories that have been passed down, which surely must be positively true (except when they’re not), and genealogical research becomes a challenge.

I have a g-g-grandfather, William H. Miller, who was from Ohio. Part of his wife Minerva’s family (the Millers) homesteaded in Nebraska in 1870. Their family:

William H. Miller, b. 22 Sept. 1832 in OH; d. 7 Nov. 1884 in KS
m. Minerva Biggerstaff, b. 1836 in OH; d. May 1896 in NE; Their children are:

  1. Sina, b. 1852 in OH; m. Powers
  2. James F. b. 1858 in OH; m. Bockey
  3. Caroline Tracy, b. June 1860 in OH; d. 23 Nov. 1884 in KS; m. John VanDyke
  4. Eliza Louisa, b. 1868 in OH; m. Kelley
  5. Simon W. (Dorsey), b. 1870 in OH; d. 23 Nov. 1884 in KS.
  6. Neoma, b. 1873 in OH; m. Mitchell
  7. Ruth Ann, b. Sept. 1874 in OH; m1. Nov. 1890 in KS, John VanDyke; div. Aug. 1892 in NE; m. 2. Aprl 1895 in NE, James H. Teachman.

The story doesn’t story there. The Miller family moved West in the early 1880s and homesteaded. A typhoid epidemic swept through the community in 1884, and William and two of his children died. Ruth’s sister Caroline Tracy, who was married to John VanDyke, was one of the casualties. My g-grandmother Ruth, survived, ultimately marrying her sister’s widower John VanDyke. The couple had one child, but things did not go well between the two. They separated, and John left. Ruth divorced John, and then married my g-grandfather James Teachman. Ruth and James lived happily ever after. End of story, right? Well not exactly.

I hoped that the tale was true, but once I began to trace family history more deeply, I found errors. Like a good detective, I’m not satisfied until I find a body, which would be William H. Miller in this case. I began tracing my ancestry more thoroughly.

When you are conducting ancestry searches on a common name, first look for things that make the individual unique. My g-g-grandfather often signed documents using his middle initial “H.” His wife’s name was Minerva. While William H. Miller can be a rather common name, Minerva Miller is less so. It is also wise to check collateral lines, which may include other family members, a business associate, neighbors, or friends.

Because this story takes place between U.S. Censuses, that is not the first place I looked to trace family history; rather, I started with deeds. I did find a William H. Miller who purchased property from the Union Pacific Railroad in 1882 in Saunders County, Nebraska, the county where Minerva’s family settled. The legal description: S35 T14 R7E. It sounded promising.

A check of the 1885 Nebraska State Census found a William Miller in Stocking Precinct with the following information:

Wm. Miller, 36
Mary Miller, 37
Florence Miller, 9
Edna, 6

My hope started to fade. There was no “Minerva” or “Ruth.” Furthering my family genealogy search, I checked county burial records and found Minerva Miller buried in Indian Mound Cemetery in Ithaca, Saunders County, Nebraska. She died in May of 1896. According to FindAGrave, there are four William Millers, including one William H., buried in Saunders County. None of them were interred in Indian Mound Cemetery. They all died after 1900. It was, literally, a dead end.

A good genealogist has more than one strategy to trace family history and I started working on mine. The next step in my genealogical research was to check U.S. Censuses. I found my g-grandmother Ruth living in Saunders County in 1900:

Teachman, James Head b. Apr. 1856 in NY m. 5 yrs.
Teachman, Ruth Wife b. Oct. 1875 in OH m. 5 yrs.
Teachman, Grace Dau b. Jun. 1889 in NE
Teachman, William A. Son b. Mar. 1896 in NE
Teachman, Florence Dau b. May 1898 in NE
Teachman, Mina M. Dau b. Nov. 1899 in NE
VanDyke, Hazel S-Dau b. Mar. 1891 in KS
Teachman, Margaret Moth b. Nov. 1822 in NJ

Hazel was g-grandmother Ruth’s daughter by John VanDyke. I didn’t know she was born in Kansas. Where in Kansas did the family live? What other records might help?

Ruth got a divorce from John VanDyke. If she was living in Nebraska at the time, there might be something in the Saunders County court records. Late one Friday afternoon, I stopped in at the District Court Clerk’s office and inquired about a really old divorce. Ruth came through for me. In August of 1892 she filed for a divorce and there it was in the very first paragraph:

“Comes now the plaintiff and complains of the defendant for that on the 22nd day of January 1890, at Dickinson in the State of Kansas, she was married to the defendant and that she has ever since said marriage conducted herself toward the defendant as a faithful, chaste and obedient wife.”

I had a place. I contacted the Dickinson County Historical Society located in Abilene, Kansas. An item from the Abilene Weekly Reporter, 27 November 1884 stated:

“A sadly afflicted family in Sherman township will hardly feel like returning thanks today to anybody or for anything. On Sunday, the 16th inst., W.H. Miller died of typhoid fever; on the 25th a son and daughter died of the same disease; another son is very low, and his daughter and son-in-law are down with the disease. Verily, dire affliction has fallen upon that household. We trust that the end is reached.”

A canvas of the county cemeteries, conducted by the historical society, showed that William H. Miller, Caroline T. (Tracy) VanDyke, and Simon W. Miller (Dorsey) were buried in Liberty Cemetery, Fragrant Hill Township. They shared the same tombstone.
I found the body – and more. But those stories are for other days.

Four Things to Remember:

  1. If you are researching a common name, working with collateral lines can be helpful.
  2. A search of FindAGrave lists Caroline VanDyke, but not William or Simon, in burials for Liberty Cemetery. Check more than one source for burial records if you need to.
  3. If you find an obelisk tombstone, be sure to look at all the sides for names. Many times when there were multiple deaths, an obelisk tombstone was purchased to save money.
  4. Finally, if you hit a brick wall in your genealogical research, consider contacting a genealogy ancestry service – RecordClick.

RecordClick’s expert genealogists can help obtain courthouse and cemetery records, provide research strategies, or trace your ancestry for your genealogy tree.

Joan Shurtliff is a Board Certified Genealogist. She is a member of the South Dakota Genealogy Society (SDGS), where she received the Outstanding Member Award for 2011. She currently serves as a Quarterly Editor for the SDGS. Ms. Shurtliff has ties to several early settlers and 1870 Nebraska homesteaders.