How to Recognize your United States Ancestor

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Imagine you have searched a record and found a person who is a possible match for your ancestor. Recognizing a person as your ancestor is one of the true joys of genealogical research.

However, there are pitfalls along the way. Sometimes researchers want so much to find their ancestor that they ignore these pitfalls and end up on the wrong family line. Correct connections come from building the identity of your ancestor and comparing that with what you learn about each possible match.

This guide will help you ask the questions which will help you decide if a person is, in fact, your ancestor.

As you compare what you already know about your ancestor against the new information you found in a record, you can decide whether you can feel reasonably sure that you have located your ancestor.


Once you have found a person in a record who may be your ancestor, the following steps will help you determine if you have, in fact, found your ancestor.

Step 1. Build an identity for your ancestor

As you research, your goal is to build on the identity of your ancestor. You need to know enough to be able to recognize him or her in the records you search. Your ancestor's identity also helps you to not be sidetracked when you find other people with the same name—a possible match.

These will help you identify your ancestor clearly:

  • Make a time line with dates and places of events in your ancestor's life. Include everything—when they bought or sold land, children, military service, and of course births, marriages, and deaths. Consider mentioning what was happening in their community and how those event may have affected your ancestor.
On your time line, include other persons associated with your ancestor.
Briefly give the source of your information.
  • Use an analysis chart to identify and evaluate what you know.
  • Consider what your findings may suggest.

Step 2. Learn about the person who is a possible match

Do the following to identify this person clearly:

  • Make a time line of information given in the record of the possible match person. This time line may be quite small but will establish dates and places clearly.
  • On your time line, include other persons mentioned in the record who were associated with the possible match.
  • Use an analysis chart to identify and evaluate what you know.
  • Evaluate what that information may suggest.

To print a working copy of a time line for a specific record, click here.

For helps in making a time line, see Tip 1.

Use an Analysis Chart to help you identify what you know about the possible match person and evaluate what that information may suggest. The following is a sample of an analysis chart:

POSSIBLE MATCH Analysis Chart for a Single Record: Samuel Richman and others (name of person) Woodstown Methodist Church Records, Salem Co., NJ (name of record)

What Do I Know About the Possible Match?
Analysis and Conclusions

1. This Samuel Richman and family members were Methodist.
1. Confirms what I suspected from the Methodist hymnal in our family artifacts.

2. This Samuel Richman "removed" from the Methodist Church in Woodstown, Salem Co., NJ in April, 1842.
2. Samuel Richman moved somewhere else. Where?

3. Samuel Richman, Sybilla Richman, Isaac Richman and Jonathan Richman were all attending the Woodstown Methodist Church between April, 1839 and April, 1842.
3. I know from our family Bible record that Sybilla Richman was the mother of Samuel Richman, and Isaac Richman was the father of Jonathan Richman. Also, I know from the 1850 census that Samuel Richmond and Jonathan Richmond were living together in Salem, Salem Co., NJ. Finding these people together in this church record points to these people being a family.

4. Samuel and Jonathan Richman both left the Woodstown Methodist Church in 1841 and 1842.
4. It is very possible that the Samuel Richmond, shoemaker, and Jonathan Richmond, shoemaker, in the 1850 census in Salem, Salem Co., NJ were these same two people and were brothers.

To print a working copy of an analysis chart for a specific record to be used with a possible match, click here.

Step 3. Analyze and compare your ancestor with the possible match

Ask yourself:

  • Is the possible match person living in the right place to be my ancestor?
  • Is this event in the right time to be within the lifetime of my ancestor?
  • Is the possible match person too young or too old to have been my ancestor?
  • Are names of children of the possible match consistent with what I know about the children of my ancestor?
  • Do the ages of the children seem logical? Are they too young or too old to belong to my ancestor?

Step 4. Make a decision about the possible match.

To decide about the possible match person, do one of the following:

  • Confirm the person as your ancestor.
  • Suspect that the person may be a relative with the same name.
  • Eliminate that person as your possible ancestor.
  • Decide that there is not enough information yet to confirm or eliminate this person as your ancestor. In that case, see Tip 3.

Step 5. Write a brief summary of your research findings.

If you After your research, write a brief summary or report about your ancestor. Either you can explain what records proved your ancestor's life events and can document his or her life history, or you can explain what records did not lead you to a definite conclusion. Either way, you will have made a valuable contribution to your family's genealogical research efforts.

Be sure to include in your paragraph the title, author, and call number of the book or film of all records you have searched.


Tip 1. How do I make a time line?

To help you single out your ancestor, include on a time line:

  • Events in date order (the same order they happened in your ancestor's life
  • Birth, marriage, and death information for each family member
  • Dates of other events, such as buying or selling land
  • Other persons associated with these events, such as neighbors on a census or witnesses on a deed or will
  • Happenings in the community that may have affected your ancestor
  • Events that are not yet proven but may help identify your ancestor. (Be sure to clearly mark these as unproven.)

A word processor is a useful tool when making a time line, because you can easily insert new dates as needed.

To print a working copy of a time line, click here.

Tip 2. Is this my ancestor?

3. Is this the right spouse?

To verify the name of a wife, check marriage records, children's birth records, land records, cemetery records, church records, and probate records.

4. Are the economic conditions of this person consistent with the known family history?

It is highly unusual for a wealthy person to suddenly be farming in a poor section of the county on a small, rented acreage, or a poor person to suddenly be a noted county official, living in a mansion. The following records give a good indication of the economic condition of the family.

Census records: see the column listing property values.
Tax lists: see property tax and personal property taxed.
Land records: see acreage of lands owned, and number of properties owned.

5. Do the relatives and associates of your ancestor appear in records with the possible match?

Check land records of the possible match person for neighbors and witnesses of deeds to see if their names are the same people you know associated with your ancestor.
Check marriage records of the possible match person and his children to see if the bondsmen and witnesses are persons who you know associated with your ancestor.
Check church records of the possible match person to see if the names of members in the congregation were also associates of your ancestor.
Check other records to see what the possible match person did after this record was made. Migration can be a good clue:

- If the possible match person migrated to a new location, does that eliminate him or her because you have a burial record or other proof that your ancestor remained in the old location? - If the possible match person migrated to a new location, could this be your ancestor, and you did not know he or she had moved?

6. Is the possible match person affiliated with the church you know your ancestor belonged to?

Does the possible match person appear in Presbyterian church records, but you know your ancestor was a Quaker?
Is there evidence that the possible match person changed religions, such as from Quaker to Presbyterian? Was he a Quaker originally, but then married out of the faith and was disowned? Could this actually be what happened to your ancestor, and they are the same person?

7. Could the possible match person, living in a neighboring county, be my ancestor?

Check county boundary changes on a map to see if the county where you know your ancestor lived could have once been part of another county. Your ancestor could have lived in the other county for a time, without actually moving his or her residence.

For more information, see County Boundary Changes.

8. Why is the name of the possible match person spelled differently from my ancestor's name?

The name of a person was commonly spelled differently in different documents. For more information, see Name Variations.

Tip 3. If I am still not sure I have found my ancestor, what should I do next?

Choose another record which has a possible match person, and repeat the first 4 steps in this guide.

Other major records available in most places in the United States include:

Census records, both federal and state.
Birth, marriage and death records, known as "Vital Records."
Cemetery records.
Church records.
Land records.
Probate records (wills, administrations, inventories).

To locate these records, see the Records Selection Table in the United States Research Outline to help you decide which records to search.

For descriptions of records available through Family History Centers or the Family History Library, click on Family History Library Catalog on the bar above.

Click on Place Search, and type the name of the state, county, or town in the Place box. When searching towns or counties, add the name of the state in the Part of (optional) box.
Select from the list of topics for that place.
Select from the list of titles to see descriptions of the records with the film or book call numbers.
Use that information to obtain the records at a family history center or at the Family History Library.

To find birth and death records, search for state records, then for county records, and then for town records.