How to Recognize your United States Ancestor

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

Imagine you have searched a record and found a person who is a possible match for your ancestor. It gets exciting, for finding your ancestor in a record is one of the true joys of genealogical research.

However, there are pitfalls along the way. Sometimes we want so much to find our ancestor that we ignore those pitfalls and end up "barking up the wrong family tree." Correct connections come from building the identity of your ancestor and comparing what you know about your ancestor with what you learn about each possible match.

This guide will help you ask questions and help you decide if a person is, in fact, your ancestor.

As you compare what you already know about your ancestor against the new information you found, you can decide whether you can feel reasonably sure that you have located your ancestor.

Steps[edit | edit source]

Once you have found a person in a record who may be your ancestor, the following steps will help you determine if you have, in fact, found your ancestor.

Step 1. Build an identity for your ancestor[edit | edit source]

As you research, your goal is to build on the identity of your ancestor. You need to know enough to be able to recognize him or her in the records you search. Your ancestor's identity also helps you to not be sidetracked when you find another person with the same name—a possible match.

These ideas will help you identify your ancestor clearly:

Include identity, origin, family, associates and neighbors. Use the FAN club principle by asking:
  • Who are the family, associates and neighbors?
  • What did they do together?
  • When did they get together?
  • Where did they meet together?
  • Why did they associate with each other?
Also include: property purchases, military service, and of course births, marriages and deaths.
Consider mentioning what was happening in the community and how those events may have affected your ancestor.
On your time line, include other people named in documents you find for each date and event.
Briefly give the source of your information.
Here are examples of timelines:
One Record Time Line for a Possible Match: Name: Samuel Richman and others
Date Record________________________________________________________________name
1816, Nov 16 Samuel Richman was born in Woodstown, Salem Co., NJ. Source: biographical encyclopedia entry for son, S. Luther Richmond.
1819 Jonathan Richman, brother of Samuel Richman, was born in Woodstown, Salem Co., NJ. Source: Census 1850, 1860.
1843, Apr 11 Samuel Richman married in Bridgeton, Cumberland Co., NJ. Source: Family Bible record.
Samuel Richman had 7 children. Source: biographical encyclopedia for son, S. Luther Richmond.
1850 Samuel Richmond made shoes in Salem City, Salem Co., NJ. Jonathan Richmond was listed as being in the household. Source: 1850 Census.
1899, Jan 13 Death of Samuel Richmond. Source: biographical encyclopedia for son, S. Luther Richmond.
  • Use an analysis chart to identify and evaluate what you know.
  • Consider what your findings may suggest.
Analysis Chart for a Possible Match: (name) Samuel Richman
What Do I Know About the Possible Match?  Analysis and Conclusions 
Biographical encyclopedia says the father of Samuel Richman/Richmond was Isaac Richman and that they lived in Woodstown, Salem Co., NJ. Look for records associating Samuel Richman/Richmond with Isaac Richman in Woodstown, Salem Co., NJ.
Samuel Richman/Richmond may have been a Methodist because there is a Methodist hymnal in our family artifacts. Check Woodstown and Salem City Methodist church records.
Samuel Richman/Richmond and his brother lived in Salem City, Salem Co., NJ and were shoemakers, according to the 1850 census. If the family did come from Woodstown, they must have moved to Salem City at some point.

Step 2. Learn about the person who is a possible match[edit | edit source]

Do the following to identify this person clearly:

  • Make a time line of information given in the record of the possible match person. This time line may be quite small but will establish dates and places clearly.
  • On that time line, include other persons mentioned in the record.
  • Use an analysis chart to identify and evaluate what you know.
  • Evaluate what that information may suggest.
MY ANCESTOR Time Line for My Ancestor: (name) Samuel Richman
Date Record: Woodstown Methodist Church, Salem Co., NJ
1839, Apr Sybilla Richman and Samuel Richman, members of Class No. 3, Woodstown Methodist Church, Salem Co., NJ.
1839, Nov Isaac Richman and Jonathan Richman "Joined on probation," Woodstown Methodist Church, Salem Co., NJ.
1840, Oct 4 Isaac Richman and Jonathan Richman "Received into full membership," Woodstown Methodist Church, Salem Co., NJ.
1841, Sept Jonathan Richman "removed" from Woodstown Methodist Church, Salem Co., NJ.
1842, Apr Samuel Richman "removed' from Woodstown Methodist Church, Salem Co., NJ.

To print a working copy of a time line for a specific record, click here.

For helps in making a time line, see Tip 1. How do I make a time line.

Step 3. Analyze and compare your ancestor with the possible match[edit | edit source]

Ask yourself:

  • Is the possible match person living in the right place to be my ancestor?
  • Is this event in the right time to be within the lifetime of my ancestor?
  • Is the possible match person too young or too old to have been my ancestor?
  • Are names of children of the possible match consistent with what I know about the children of my ancestor?
  • Do the ages of the children seem logical or are they too young or too old to belong to my ancestor?

For more questions to help you analyze, see Tip 2 Is this my ancestor.

Step 4. Make a decision about the possible match[edit | edit source]

To decide about the possible match person, do one of the following:

  • Confirm the person as your ancestor.
  • Suspect that the person may be a relative with the same name.
  • Eliminate that person as your possible ancestor.
  • Decide that there is not enough information yet to confirm or eliminate this person as your ancestor. In that case, see Tip 3 If I am not sure, what should I do next?

Step 5. Write a brief summary of your research findings[edit | edit source]

After your research, write a brief summary or report about your ancestor. Either you can explain what records proved your ancestor's life events and can document his or her life history, or you can explain what records did not lead you to a definite conclusion. Either way, you will have made a valuable contribution to your family's genealogical research efforts.

Be sure to include in your paragraph the title, author, and call number of the book or film of all records you have searched.

Tips[edit | edit source]

Tip 1. How do I make a time line?[edit | edit source]

To help you single out your ancestor, include on a time line:

  • Events in date order (the same order they happened in your ancestor's life
  • Birth, marriage, and death information for each family member
  • Dates of other events, such as buying or selling land
  • Other persons associated with these events, such as neighbors on a census or witnesses on a deed or will
  • Happenings in the community that may have affected your ancestor
  • Events that are not yet proven but may help identify your ancestor. (Be sure to clearly mark these as unproven.)

A word processor is a useful tool when making a time line, because you can easily insert new dates as needed.

To print a working copy of a time line, [click here.

Tip 2. Is this my ancestor?[edit | edit source]

  • Is this the right spouse?
To verify the name of a wife, check marriage records, children's birth records, land records, cemetery records, church records, and probate records.
  • Are the economic conditions of this person consistent with the known family history?
It is highly unusual for a wealthy person to be found in a poor section of the county on a small, rented acreage, or for a poor person to suddenly be a noted county official, living in a mansion.
The following records give a good indication of the economic condition of the family:
  • Census records: notice the column listing property values.
  • Tax lists: check both property and personal property taxed.
  • Land records: see both the number of properties and the acreage of lands owned.
  • Is the FAN Club of your ancestor the same people as the FAN Club for the possible match?
The following records are rich resources for learning the Family, Associates, and Neighbors (FAN Club) of both your ancestor and the possible match:
  • Land records for witnesses and neighbors
  • Censuses for neighbors
  • Marriage records to learn the names of grooms for sisters or aunts
  • Church records to learn names of other members
  • Check other records to see what the possible match person did after this record was made.
Migration can be a good clue:
  • If your ancestor moved, see if the possible match person stayed around or did they seem to have migrated?
  • Conversely, if you have a burial record or other proof that your ancestor stayed around, try to determine if the possible match moved.
If their data matches, the possible match person is still a candidate.
  • Is the possible match person affiliated with the church you know your ancestor belonged to?
For example, does the possible match person appear in Presbyterian church records, but you know your ancestor was a Quaker?
Be careful here, since people may have changed religions. For example, your ancestor may have been a Quaker originally, but went to war or married out of the faith.
  • There is a person living in a neighboring county who has the same name as my ancestor. Could they be a possible match person?
They may be the same person. Check county boundary changes or parent counties. Your ancestor could own land in a neighboring county, or could have lived on his farm when a new county was formed, finding himself in another county without actually moving.
For more information, see County Boundary Changes.
  • Why is the name of the possible match person spelled differently from my ancestor's name?
The name of a person was commonly spelled differently in different documents. For more information, see Name Variations.

Tip 3. If I am still not sure, what should I do next?[edit | edit source]

Choose another record which has a possible match person, and repeat the first 4 steps in this guide.

Other major records available in most places in the United States include:

  • Census records, both federal and state
  • Birth, marriage and death records, frequently known as "Vital Records"
  • Cemetery records
  • Church records
  • Land records
  • Probate records (wills, administrations, inventories).

Many of these records were created on a county or town level. In this FamilySearch Wiki, search for the county you need. The county page will list various types of records with links to online resources and to records available through the Family History Library or Family History Centers.