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How to Know Which Record Belongs to Your Ancestor

If you are building your family tree, you have likely seen several documents with the same name as that of your ancestor. How to know which one to use? In this post, learn how to know which record belongs to your ancestor.

We definitely don’t want to add the wrong information or document to our family tree. If we do, we might cause confusion to ourselves or someone else in the future.

How to Know Which Record Belongs to Your Ancestor

Any small detail in genealogy is a clue that we can use to learn more about our ancestors. It is these small details that can sometimes send us off in the wrong direction on our tree, and this is an especially big risk if we choose to follow the wrong trail of documents.

If my ancestor’s name is John Smith, and I see five different John Smiths on my search results, how do I know which one to choose? Each John Smith on the list has a different set of parents and a different birth date.

I certainly don’t want to add the wrong John Smith to my tree! Imagine adding the wrong John Smith and then spending months (or years) researching his ancestors, only to find out later that I’m not even descended from him.

Below, I have compiled some tips about choosing records when there are multiple people with the same name.

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Check each record for details that you already know about your ancestor

You should carefully examine each document or record to compare them with information that you already know about your ancestors. It’s important to not make any guesses when it comes to choosing a document, so only use information that you are pretty certain about.

Before choosing a record to examine, go through all of the documents and other information that you have collected about your ancestor in order to refresh your memory on the details you have already learned.

You can use the following details about your ancestor to compare with the documents you aren’t sure about to find which one matches your ancestor:

  • Complete name, including middle initial
  • Unusual spellings
  • Parents of your ancestor
  • Relatives listed on document match known family members
  • Place of birth or marriage matching known residence for your ancestor
  • Exact match on vital record date (i.e. date of birth is an exact match)
  • Same residence as previous record, as in the same residence as previous census record
  • Same or similar occupation as previous records show (occupations can vary slightly over ancestor’s career path)
  • Religious document matches known religion of ancestor
  • Location of death matches their last known residence or residence of one of their adult children

Even the information that we learned from family stories or oral traditions being passed down can help us figure out which record likely belongs to our ancestor. Every clue is important!

Ideally, more than one detail from the document you choose matches your ancestor. The more proof that you can find that the document you think belongs to ancestor actually does belong to them, the better.

Eliminate records that don’t belong to your ancestor based on negative information

Sometimes, you can use a process of elimination to decide which records don’t belong to your ancestor. This is a good way to quickly discard some options and make your research a little easier.

For example, if I know that my John Smith ancestor was born and died in New Jersey, and was present in New Jersey for the US Federal Census every year, it is unlikely that a marriage record from New Mexico belongs to him. Even if the wife has the same, yet equally common name.

For example, if my John Smith married a Mary Brown, and I find a record like the one I mentioned above for a John Smith and Mary Brown marrying in New Mexico, it’s probably the wrong couple. I need more than just names to be sure that the record is for the right person or people.

Just out of curiosity, I did a search on Family Search for John Smiths who married Mary Browns. There are at least eight couples who fit the description, and some of them are even in the same state.

If I add in the records where no last name is listed for the spouse of John Smith and only “Mary” is written, I can easily add ten more possible records to my list.

Details like middle names, or even middle initials, exact place of birth, and names of other relatives are crucial. Using this information, I can sort through these seemingly identical records to discard the ones that don’t belong to the couple that I am researching.

Remember, if it seems wrong, it probably is. That is, unless you have additional documents that support the records belonging to your ancestor.

Public family trees don’t count as source for details about your ancestor

I thought it important to mention that when we are trying to decide whether a record belongs to our ancestor, we avoid choosing a record based on information that we found in someone else’s family tree. The only exception to this is whether the information that we found is backed up by a document or record that you have examined and determined is correct.

The internet is a lovely invention and it has helped make genealogy research much easier for those of us who enjoy the hobby. There are always downsides, however.

There are millions upon millions of errors in family trees that are on the internet. The nature of the internet makes it easy to mistakenly incorporate these errors into our own family trees.

This is why I suggest that we treat other family trees like a hypothesis or theory, and not a source. Other family trees are as reliable as a family story told by our Great-Aunt Sally and must be backed up by original sources.

No offense to Great-Aunt Sally, of course.


I hope that this post has helped you learn some techniques for figuring out which document belongs to your ancestor, and which records you should ignore. If you have any of your own tips that you’d like to share, please join us in the discussion below.

Thanks for stopping by today!

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