When two people have the same (or similar) names, or one person has multiple names, it can create big problems for genealogists. Records on individuals with the same name need to be “sorted” out into their separate identities, while individuals who used different names may have to be “merged” together to create one identity despite the varying names. The separating or merging is not always an easy process, and sometimes it is downright impossible. Incomplete or hasty research can aggravate the situation. Jumping to conclusions too early and holding on to them for too long may only add to the confusion.

To help with these frustrating occurrences, today’s article centers on difficulties caused by individuals with similar names.

Making Assumptions: A Case Study

Philip Smith and Sarah Kile were living as husband and wife in Mercer County, Illinois in the 1870 and 1880 census. This family was the focus of our research. Sarah’s children’s marriage and death records had consistently listed her maiden name as Kile. But the consistency of secondary sources, while comforting, did not guarantee their accuracy. However, Sarah was listed as Archibald Kile’s daughter in a late-1800s Mercer County, Illinois court case. The maiden name seemed fairly solid.

A search of the online Illinois Marriage Index located no marriage between Philip Smith and Sarah Kile. However, there was a marriage between a Sarah McIntosh and a Philip Smith on 3 May 1860. Another search of Kile marriages for females turned up an 1858 marriage for a Peter McLain and a Sally Kile. After finding these online records, I made the connection that Sarah and Sally were one in the same. After all, Sally was a well-known nickname for Sarah. Peter must have had died shortly after the couple’s 1858 marriage, and Sarah must have married again. The nickname situation would explain the ladies’ first name difference, and the original record was probably just misread so that McLain was mistakenly recorded as McIntosh. The scenario seemed clear, based on these assumptions! (Genealogy Guardian Angel advice: Look at the actual, original marriage records before making a conclusion like that.)

Next Stop: Census!

I located an entry for Peter McLain and Sarah L. McLain in a published 1860 Mercer County, Illinois census. But the published source did not include the actual date the census was taken, and I was still holding strong to my theory. However, listed in the household were an Elizabeth Kile and a William Kile. The 1860 census does not give relationships to heads of household. Sarah, the wife of Philip Smith, was the daughter of Archibald Kile. My theory was starting to unravel slightly, but perhaps the older Kiles were Sarah McLain’s aunt and uncle. (Genealogy Guardian Advice: Be certain you aren’t trying to make the records fit the theory instead of making the theory fit the records.)

I needed the original census to doublecheck the information and determine the date the census was taken. While I was waiting for that, a quick look at my copy of The Sources indicated that the 1860 census began on 1 June 1860. Philip Smith married Sarah McIntosh on 3 May 1860. This was starting to shoot holes in my theory.

On To 1870 . . .

There’s Peter McLain STILL living with Sally! My theory is now bust, as Philip Smith and his Sarah had several children by this time. It is back to the drawing board.

Back to the marriages (more thoroughly this time . . .)

A search in the online Illinois State Marriage Index for brides under the surname “Kyle” located a marriage between a John McIntosh and a Sarah Kyle in September of 1852 in Mercer County, Illinois. This information led to a new working hypothesis, which was as follows:

Sarah Kile married John McIntosh in 1852. This marriage was terminated (either by John’s death or by a judge). Sarah McIntosh married Philip Smith in 1860. Sally Kile, who married Peter McLain, was likely a relative of Sarah Kile, who is known to have married Philip Smith. Sarah Kile (McIntosh?) Smith and Sarah Kile McLain are likely related, possibly cousins. A look at Philip Smith and Sarah McIntosh’s marriage license lists her as “Mrs. Sarah McIntosh” with a mark on the Mrs. (it’s not clear if the mark is intending to strike out the Mrs. or not). This “Mrs.” notation is not indicated in the online marriage index and is a considerable clue.

There’s still plenty of work to be done: a COMPLETE analysis of census and other records, and an attempt to find out what happened to John McIntosh.

Lessons Learned

    • 1) Nicknames should not always be an “excuse” to automatically “combine” two individuals.

2) Consider alternate spellings.

3) Do not jump to conclusions.

4) Research with the goal of finding out as much of the truth as you can—not with the intent of proving your initial hunch correct.

5) Continue to analyze all information as new information is located.


Comments on This Research “Technique”

    • 1) Sally was frequently used as a nickname for Sarah.

2) McIntosh and McLain being considered the “same” without any evidence to back it up was a stretch (and a very long one at that).

3) At least the research continued and the researcher finally admitted that the initial theory was not correct.


Final Note

When I was just starting my research, I hired an individual to look for an ancestral marriage record. The individual found a man with the correct surname and a woman with the correct surname, but the date he found was not the same as the marriage date I had provided. I received a copy of this couple’s license with the comment (paraphrased), “Nicknames were common in early days, and people weren’t always certain anyway. Likely your date is off. Here’s the copy.”

It was only some years later, when I researched the records myself, that I discovered my ancestors’ marriage record was there—with the date and the names I had given the researcher. My ancestor and his brother had married sisters, and I was originally sent the record for their siblings.




2 Responses

  1. If only it were that easy! I’m working with John Sr aka John Sergt. and his son John. ALSO John the dishturner and his son John. All alive and living in the same town in the 1600’s. One reference book will say one thing and then the next book the opposite. Some days it makes sense but today I have no idea which parents belong to which father. Oh, and each was married a couple of times.

  2. I have a family: Great-Great Grandparents & their 6 children. I descend from the first, a boy. The rest are girls.
    The unusual thing I see is the children all had 2 names, The earliest census shows each child by their one name, the next time they carry the other one. This continues while they are children in the home. As the children grow & start their own families they report their name “as their 2nd name”. You need to follow EVERY census for this family to realize this & be sure you don’t had a new child. My direct ancestor went by his middle name as an ADULT.

    Now the problem I have is my Great-Grant Grandfather I cannot find. Their surname has really been research by many.. Because I cannot find the man under the name I know him as, I THINK IT IS HIS SECOND NAME & others researchers have looked for him under his “First Name”: that his parents called him, and cannot find his family.. I make this statement because of what his children did as adults There a lot of unfinished trees under this surname, . I finst find my great grandfather when he was married & had his first child in 1840,

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