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.
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.
Those 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, 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.