Tips from the Pros: The “Maybe Relateds ,” from Loretto D. Szucs

When you’re working on common surnames, it doesn’t take very long for things to get awfully confusing. This is especially true if you are working in big cities where there may be hundreds of unrelated people sharing the same last name. And in our case, those families with common surnames had no idea of how they would deepen our frustration by giving their children common first names like John, James, William and Mary. Fortunately, when I took my first genealogy class (way back in the last century), the instructor wisely taught us to keep track of all findings – even when the people found in the records appear not to be related to your family. She suggested keeping a “Maybe Related” file and I can tell you it was one of the best methods I ever learned.  
Before we had the wonderful convenience of indexed census records on our home computer screens, we had to go to a library or an archive and tediously search through page after page of names.  Frankly, I was impatient to zero in and copy only information that pertained to known relatives, but I’m glad I followed the instructor’s teachings. I’m not sure I’d have the patience to do it now, but I made an index card for every Dennis, Dyer, Kelly, Miller, Muller and Nelson that I ran across in census schedules, books and other records. It wasn’t feasible to copy every piece of information on every record, but I did copy names, ages, occupations, birthplaces or other identifying information, along with the name of the record in which the name was found, the page number, the name of library or archive in which it was found and the date it was found. In that way, I’m able to go back to a record if I ever need it again. It sure beats trying to remember where I saw something and wasting precious time wading through collections for a second or third time. In recent years, I’ve transcribed these index cards into lists and spreadsheets on my computer.  I’ve also learned to keep track of people who may or may not be related when I search records on and other internet sites. This file has helped me more than once to figure out who is, and who is not mine.
Keeping track of same-named ladies and gentlemen turned out to be enormously helpful when I went to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City earlier this month.  As I looked for our James Miller in vital records, I found several possible candidates, but looking back on my “Maybe Related” file I was able to see how most of my new finds couldn’t possibly be him because of significant discrepancies in age, birthplace, family composition, or death dates. There’s one James Miller who looks pretty suspicious, however. His age matches, his wife’s name is right, but everything we have says our ancestor was German born. The enumerator noted that this newly-found fellow was Irish born. I copied relevant information anyway and hopefully one day soon, we will be able to sort it all out and know which one might be our ancestor.
If you have common name mysteries in your family, I highly recommend the “Maybe Related” filing system on your computer or even the index card method. Call me “old fashioned” but I still love to pull out the index cards and move them around and analyze them in different ways. As we add to these files, individual and family patterns will emerge and those hidden behind common names will finally reveal themselves. At least sometimes they do!

How do you deal with the “maybe relateds” in your files? Share your tips with us in the comments section below.

14 thoughts on “Tips from the Pros: The “Maybe Relateds ,” from Loretto D. Szucs

  1. I’ve created a “Persons of Interest Record” for each of my main surnames. This chart contains five columns labelled: Name, Date, Possible Relationship/Other Information, Record/Source/Location, and Date Resourced. In this manner, I can record information regarding individuals who may or may not be related. This information is thus retained for future reference and consideration. And I can always go back to the original source to check further, if I find it necessary. I keep these charts at the back of the Research Journals for each surname where it can easily be accessed.

  2. When I find a Census of a family member I know is correct, I carefully look at the “neighborhood” — few pages before and after. So many relatives lived close to each other, especially in the rural areas. I always keep notes of everyone in the household and all their info anyway, so on the same page, I just add the “suspects” and all their household and info. It makes it easy to connect and locate later if a good link is proven.

  3. How right you are! In my first trip to research the family tre, I traveled from North Carolina to Red Oak, Montgomery County, Iowa. Although I didn’t know any of the family names at that time, I copied all the information about anyone with the surname King from the courthouse records. Years later, I realized that all those names were the siblings and families of my great grandmother.

  4. Could the “Irish” connection simply denote that the ship’s last port of call was Queenstown in Ireland? I can imaagine the question being asked: “Where have come from?” and the truthful reply made: “From Ireland”


  5. I agree with Peter. I have one ancestor who was listed as Dutch, German and English on various census records. Thus don’t let the nationality given divert you from the right person.

    Also be careful about people going by middle names. My mother tells about her father and uncle meeting to exchange mail every week or so. One’s given name was John Henry — known as Henry and the other Henry John — known as John. Knowing this has helped me keep my records straight.

  6. Don’t dismiss the German/Irish confusion. The Irish often reported a different nationality because of discrimination and the shame of “The Starving Time”. The Potato Famine was not even taught in Irish schools for 150 years. We thought for years that our family was from England when, in fact, we are from Tipperary, Ireland.

  7. Which each family group of files I keep a folder labeled “(Surname)s not yet connected.” I also have copied every census page with an ancestor’s surname on it in a rural township. Then, as I have found marriage records, wills, hints from helpful internet “cousins,” etc., I connect the “not yet connected” people to my known family. Just last week, in a response to one of my 2007 Rootsweb Message Board posts, I received a hint about the first and married names of the two oldest sisters of my g-g-grandfather. When I looked at my copies of the census and marriage records I had placed post-it-notes on the records speculating if and how these two women were realted, especially as one of these women with the last married name of both (sisters marrying brothers?) was living in the household of my g-g-grandfather in 1870.

  8. For many years I suspected that a certain George Merkel, born in San Francisco in late 1869, was an ancestor of mine, although I could not prove it because I was not sure of the first name. His birthdate was about right, he was living in the right place, and I had followed all the males of the different Merkel families and none of them appeared to be the right one, except for him.

    To complicate matters, I later learned that after my 2nd great grandmother divorced him due to abandonment and “lack of support” after a short marriage, George Merkel assumed an alias, moved to Oakland, became a police officer, married another woman and was shortly therafter killed in the line of duty.

    So, as “George Merkel”, he disappeared from the census records after 1880. It wasn’t until his death in 1907 that his co-workers and new friends in Oakland learned that he had been living under an alias. Newspaper reports stated that no one knew why he was using a phoney name, but i suspect it was probably due to the fact that he did not want to give spousal support to his first wife.

    Before discovering the story behind George Merkel, I had entered all the information I found about him and his family into my Family Tree Maker database. For at least two years I kept adding information, expanding that family tree, trying to find a link. I accumulated quite a large family file on him. One day I found the ‘missing link’ – that piece of information that tied him to my family. Since I had already taken the time to research George’s family, I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel, so to speak. If I had let that information slip through my fingers when I found it, on the premise that I didn’t know if he was a relation, I would have had to do it all over again at a later time.

    Subsequent to ‘discovering’ my second great grandfather, I was able to further fill out the family picture and made a connection with some second cousins in California. Getting to know them has been a great experience.

    I have been working on my genealogy for 30 years and have traced my lineage back to the royal families of Scotland, England and Spain, so I am pretty much ‘done’ with my file. But I do keep track of “possibly related” families for my clients and in connection with a history book I am writing. I highly recommend this practice, as it has often netted spectacular results, such as the one I’ve outlined above.

  9. I use Legacy for my family tree. When I find a person of interest, I set up a new file for a particular location (i.e. Bately, Yorkshire, England) and place those individuals into that file, completing as many fields as possible including all notes, sources, etc. I’ll link wives, husbands,children, even just siblings when the information is available. This keeps my own family tree free of questionable relatives and it is then easy to search using the name list. It is also easy to copy or move the data if I discover at a later date that the person or family are related. If I am working from a primary source, such as an obituary, I will also post that information through USGenWeb for others to find.

  10. I call them “Misc Unidentified [surname], and so far I keep records in paper files. Because many of my ancestors were Roman Catholic, they often have a “church name” first [John, Mary, Joseph, etc.] then the name they normally used [Gerhard, Gertrude, etc.]. But some of them later used their “church name” because it was “more American.” I had a Mary Booms [one of the surnames I’m searching] who I thought was not related. However, tracing her daughter [Regina] and her mother [Regina Ebbers – they all lived together in 1880] led me to her daughter’s second husband whose first marriage turned out to be to a woman from another branch of my family. I now believe Mary was married to my Greatuncle Frank Booms, and that this line may provide the link I need to prove the Booms of Ohio are related to the Booms of Michigan.

  11. RE German vs Irish – I have 3 greatuncles who changed their names around WWI because they felt there was anti-German sentiment at that time. The eldest changed his last name to “Smith,” and on one census claimed to be from Ireland. In later census records he went back to saying he was from Germany. I have the passenger list and they did not stop in Ireland along the way.

  12. I add “maybe related” persons into my family files by listing them under “unrelated individual” which is an option in Family Tree Maker. I add notes to the entry regarding the person for future reference and it has worked well for me. Some were later connected and others were eliminated and it was all there in my data when needed. They are easily connected as family once linked.

  13. When dealing with “maybe related” families, I keep a family sheet
    on each family with whatever info I can find plus where I found
    the information. Then I put these sheets in a paper three ring folder and add the family name to the front of the folder. These
    little 3 ring folders were found for 10/$1. I review the info
    very couple of months when I want to do a little “brain storming”. I’m researching the name Dunlap in Indiana and decided to put together a folder when I came across one Dunlap
    that named his first two children after the couple that I am
    looking for. They had disappeared during the early 1870’s and
    left about nine children to fend for themselves…..So this unrelated nonsense makes sense to me! Why do all this back
    pedaling when just taking a few more minutes could solve one
    of your biggest problems later. Great column!

  14. I agree! I created a “possible relatives” file for each family I’m researching, and as I come across various ones who may not tie in at the time, I tuck their information into these files and periodically refer back to them, to see if any of them tie in later on in my “travels” through the families. It works beautifully and I have saved myself many hours back-pedaling through files later by taking the extra few minutes to save the information as I find it. This is a great tip! Thanks for sharing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.