Thursday, May 21, 2015

Smiths and Joneses at #NGS2015GEN

Details from the old TV show: Alias Smith and JonesAt the 2015 annual conference of the National Genealogical Society, Elizabeth Shown Mills presented a session titled “Smiths and Joneses: How to Cope with Families of Common Names.”

She taught a research process model, research analysis model, and identity triangulation model. These are covered in her QuickSheet: The Historical Biographer’s Guide to the Research Process. I reviewed this product recently. (See “Review: Research Process QuickSheet.”) She taught her Problem Solving Spiral, taken from her QuickSheet: The Historical Biographer’s Guide to Cluster Research (the FAN Principle). (You can see a diagram of the spiral on her blog.) Unlike some product-hawking presenters, she never mentioned the existence of these products. Quite the opposite. If you went to the NGS conference, you can print a copy of her handout (pp. 441-4) and you’ll have half the information from these two products.

Elizabeth states that when dealing with common names, the chance of erroneously linking a record to a person is greatened. I loved Elizabeth’s terminology: “identity theft” and “former ancestors.” Committing the first, results in the second.

One thing she taught was that we need to finish extracting information, analyzing documents, and correlating findings while we are still onsite with the records. I recently suffered the results of not doing so. I was on an expensive, cross-continental research trip. I thought my pristine photographs of a business ledger would suffice. No need to extract them on the spot. When I got home I found that while the photographs were pristine, the handwriting was not. How I wished I could examine additional pages to assist deciphering. Oops.

“Research is not trolling the internet for names.” Dealing with common surnames doesn’t change the rules of sound research. “Working with common names requires that every source and every piece of information be critically appraised from every possible angle.”


  1. I was able to prove my long lost paternal grandfather Moore by adding his name as a placeholder in my family tree. I was contacted by one his relatives and was able to prove the relationship with DNA (23andMe and AncestryDNA) and finally with records.

  2. One thing to keep in mind is that which surnames are common will vary by location and timeframe - just because your name is rare today, doesn't mean that it is rare where your target person was living long ago. This is especially true when looking at records from ancestral villages.


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