One of the most important—and most overlooked—forms of analysis that genealogists must perform is confirming the identity of the subject of the record.
Much has been stated about the difficulty of researching common names like Johnson, Smith, Jones, etc. Researchers must be careful, though, not to assume that the unusual name of their ancestor was unique to them, however. Some surnames seem unique to us but were common in that time and place. Even a unique combination of given name and surname could be common within a certain generation, and not as unique as it might seem to us. So you must be careful to confirm the identity of the subject of every record you locate.
In some cases, you will not be able to tell by looking at the record by itself. This is what the Genealogical Proof Standard means when it requires “correlation” of information. We must compare the information in one record to the information in other records.
Federal census records comprise the most popular record group in use by genealogists. For an ancestor who lived 80 years, he may appear in seven, possibly eight, separate census records. Finding these records is important, but it is also important to recognize and confirm the identity of the families in each household.
Census records allow one of the most useful techniques for confirming identity: using relationships with other people. I discussed this in an article originally published in the “National African American Genealogy” column on Examiner.comon 11 August 2009, “Using ‘clusters’ to track your ancestors through multiple census years (part one).”
But how do you confirm identity in other records?
Most records contain more than just our ancestors’ names. Records may contain ages, occupations, street addresses or neighboring farm owners, names of their fathers (as in “Henry son of Aaron” or simply “John of Thomas”). You can often compare these other details from record to record in order to confirm identity.
The more records (and information) you obtain, the easier it becomes to confirm identity, specifically because of these details.
Take the following death certificate, for example:
[You can click on the image to see a larger image.]
There are a few details on this death certificate that will be useful for identification of this John A. Meagher in other records: name (of course), age, and address of residence. The name of the cemetery also suggests additional records for research.
Using this information we can easily find this John A. Meagher in the 1900 U. S. Census, where his household also contains his wife Mary C., and several sons and daughters. Taking this further, we can find him again in the 1880 U. S. Census, where his household contains the same wife and children. By comparing and correlating the information relating to John’s age (and corresponding implicit date of birth) among these three records with his street address as reported in 1900, the names of his wife and children between the two census records, etc., we are able to confirm that all three records relate to the same man.
We can take this research further by comparing other details–like the street address in 1880, the date of marriage in 1900, the date of death, etc.–with the details provided by still more records. Marriage records, probate records, land records, pre-1880 federal census records, etc., could all be consulted to gain additional information about John A. Meagher’s family.
Each of these records may also provide more details that would lead to more records, each of which may contain more details, etc. The process of confirming identity requires attention to detail, which in turn allows us to create full (and accurate!) profiles of our ancestors’ lives.
Are you taking the time to confirm the identity of the subject of every record you consult?
[photo] Baltimore City Health Department, Bureau of Vital Statistics, death certificate no. B-37632 (1901), John A. Meagher; Maryland State Archives microfilm no. CR 48116.
 1900 U. S. Census, Baltimore City, Maryland, population schedule, Ward 17, enumeration district (ED) 222, sheet 1B, dwelling 12, family 15, John Meagher household; digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed Mar 2011); citing NARA microfilm publication T623, roll 615.
 1880 U. S. Census, Baltimore City, Maryland, population schedule, 1st precinct, 12th ward, enumeration district (ED) 104, page 21, dwelling 147, family 175, John Meagher household; digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed Mar 2011); citing NARA microfilm publication T9, roll 501, FHL microfilm no. 1,254,501.
If you would like to cite this post: Michael Hait, “Who is this? Confirming the identity of a record’s subject,” Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 30 Nov 2011 (http://michaelhait.wordpress.com : accessed [access date]). [Please also feel free to include a hyperlink to the specific article if you are citing this post in an online forum.]