Posted by Ancestry Team on March 23, 2015 in Website

We like to think Shakespeare was channeling his inner family historian when he penned the famous line “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Talk to any expert genealogist and they will tell you that relying on an ancestor’s name alone can be a mistake.Angie Harmon_1

It can be a tough thing to wrap your head around name variations because the times we live in are so different than they were 100+ years ago. The first American dictionary wasn’t published until 1828, and estimates for 1905 state that even then 20 percent of American adults couldn’t read or write. Literacy rates in the U.S. today are believed to be near universal, hence our belief in standardized spelling. The much quoted (and difficult to attribute) phrase “a man must be a great fool who can’t spell a word more than one way” reflects an era very different from ours.

Angie Harmon’s family history journey began with her 5th great-grandfather Michael Harman, and the spelling of his last name with an “a” instead of an “o” quickly caught her eye. The fascinating story of Michael Harman’s indentured servitude, Revolutionary War service, and family life resonated deeply with Angie’s love of big families, resilience, and patriotism. Despite his name being slightly different from hers, she instantly connected with the big risks that defined Michael Harman’s life—there was something about him that transcended his name.

Angie Harmon_2Those gut feelings can be good guides, as the name Michael Harman, interestingly enough, turned out to be a very common one in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, during the Colonial period. The story of Angie’s 5th great-grandfather had to be very carefully pieced together, as since his name wasn’t going to be enough to identify him. Two characteristics helped us find him: his occupation, and his signature.

Michael’s record of indenture states he was to serve John Houts, a tanner. Later records of Michael’s life show he continued to work as a tanner, later owning his own tanning yard. His occupation became a way of identifying him beyond his name.

The other unique identifier for Michael was his signature. His “mark” is pointed out twice in the episode, showing he likely could not read or write.  However,Angie_Harmon3 Angie_Harmon4 we noticed how unique his mark was: more of a lower case “t” or slanted “x” with a long tail or “o”. Other deeds and probate records showed the same pattern.

Using his unique “signature,” in addition to age, place, and family member names, helped us build the case that we had the right guy. While initially daunting, taking the time to understand the nuances, quirks, and characteristics of a person is how you will get to know them—because they were and are ultimately more than just a name.

Tips from Ancestry ProGenealogists        

Running into an ancestor with a common name is more a matter of “when” than “if.” When sifting through a group of people with the same name, here are some tips:

  • Create timelines for each person with the same name, collect documents and information about them, and closely track unique information: age, place of birth, residence or address, occupation, and names of family members. In learning as much as you can about your ancestor and his associations, it will be easier to distinguish him from other people with the same name.
  • Pay attention to handwriting. If a document is especially difficult to read, create a chart of list of the scribe’s alphabet. How are similar letters like i and j or u, r, v, n, and m different? Having a list of “rules” will make smudged or rushed entries more manageable.
  • Having a broader understanding of the community your ancestor lived in will help you identify larger trends, like whether or not a name or occupation is common or unusual. Adding local contextual history to your timeline helps bring your ancestor’s story to life

Learn more about Angie’s journey or watch the full episode on TLC.com. Watch more celebrities discover their family history on all-new episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Sundays 10|9c on TLC.

9 Comments

  1. Nancy King

    I wish Ancestry would put the celebrity’s entire family tree online after the show. So much is left out when the focus is only on one ancestor, and the show leaves us wanting to know the whole story.

  2. LindaJ

    Nancy, I agree. Given the location of the Harmon property (that amazingly has stayed in the family) I am very curious about the generations between the Rev. War and now. What happened there during the Civil War???

  3. Evelyn S.

    I have repeatedly checked the TLC.com and WDYTYA site but they do not have the full episodes on-line to watch. It is very disappointing as I love the show but cannot stay up to watch it at 10pm because I go to work at 5AM.

  4. Barbara Klein

    I am also descended from Corp. Michael Harmon thru his daughter Margaret “Peggie” Harmon Pipes. I have a lot of data of Michael’s descendants and would be happy to share info.

  5. Sandra

    For Evelyn S. – I just checked, and full episodes are available on Hulu.com – which is the free version. I don’t see Angie Harmon’s episode yet, but hopefully it will be there soon.

  6. I noticed right away that the second person to purchase Michael Harman’s indenture was William Will. I believe he was Colonel William Will. My ancestor served under him in the Rev. War in the Militia 3rd of Foot (Harman was in the 4th of Foot).

  7. Cindy Gomez

    I have seen celebrity trees in the past but not lately. I agree they should put them up but do you think its due to privacy?

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