Playing the elimination game

Which John Smith is mine? This article deals with the common problem of having too many candidates to choose from. 

How do you separate out this John Smith from that John Smith?  Unfortunately, people in the past chose first names from a limited range, so it is possible to have three or even four men all called ‘John’ born around the same time with the same surname, even quite a rare surname, and no immediately obvious way of picking the right person. If you do not have enough information to differentiate people, you must resist the temptation to take the candidate with the most likely looking birth dates or place of birth and put him or her into your tree without further thought.  You could have picked the wrong one and will now be following an ancestor who is not yours.  However, it is often possible to work out who is who with some patience and diligent methods, even when the names are very common.  You will need to research all your candidates in order to eliminate them.

After July 1837 in England & Wales and January 1855 for Scotland, it should be possible in theory, to place the majority of people into the correct tree, regardless of a common name.  This is because civil registration certificates can be checked against census information and other sources, such as parish registers, and probate information.  Even though there may be many John Smiths, once you have some other family names, the possible candidates start to diminish.  While there may be many John Smiths born around the same time, the chance that there are two John Smiths with father Thomas, mother Hannah and sister Elizabeth, all in the same area, gets less.  Thus, as each fact about a family is filled in, the other possible candidates shrink.   

I recommend buying as many birth, marriage and death certificates as you can afford as I have seen difficult cases solved with their bulk purchase.  However, this can be a very expensive strategy.  If you are certain of the exact place of the event, a local registrar may be willing to check a number of candidates for you in their registration district and only supply a certificate if it matches your criteria. Unfortunately, the General Register Office (GRO) limit the number of checks they will do in any three year period and no longer check a number of references for a smaller fee than the certificate itself.

Sometimes the only location information you have covers a big area, but you are certain of dates. In this case, make sure you concentrate on events for the correct quarter(s) only, keeping lists of all possible candidates.  You may still get many to choose from, but precision in any known fact about the event narrows the field considerably.  In England and Wales there are 49 John Smith (no middle name) GRO birth registrations in the March quarter of 1881 (  When narrowed down by district, the numbers in any one district drop to just 3 or 4. The majority of John Smiths in that quarter were registered in Lancashire.  Using the local registrar’s indexes on UKBMD allows the same search to be narrowed further by sub-districts, but check coverage of any local indexes before starting your search, as they may not be complete.  Thus, if you had an address, perhaps from the census, the sub-district information would be a great help to focus in on only one or two John Smiths.

When searching before census and civil registration, the number of candidates narrows dramatically as the population going backwards in time gets smaller and smaller, but the research problems expand due to there being less sources to search within.  For someone whose dates straddle that period, perhaps dying after the 1851 census, make the most of certificates and census and other available sources such as memorial inscriptions, burial information, and probate documents for the end of their life to fix upon a likely year of birth and place. 

For those who are not recorded on any census the situation can be far more difficult, particularly if they have moved into a large city during their lifetime.  Without an exact parish to start in, the search can seem hopeless.  In such a case the only thing to do is to build up knowledge of the whole family, perhaps a sibling has a more unusual name, or an occupation where place of birth would have been recorded.  If so, focus your research on that sibling.  When you do have a parish, or a set of possible parishes, make full extracts of all people with the surname in the parish, collecting baptisms, marriages and burials in order to put them into trees.  In particular, the many child burials will eliminate candidates.

I reconstructed one family in Wales over the 18th and nineteenth centuries with the surname Evans who, just to make things fun, had a branch known by the surname Thomas.  I did this by focusing very closely on one parish and a couple of farms in that parish, using those people with the more unusual first names to locate other likely areas to search within, while at the same time also working up biographies of those family members who had the more unusual occupations.  By focusing on people who stood out, with precise locations, the pieces of the puzzle were all correctly fitted into place, both before and after civil registration.

As you research, work out the widest possible scope of the research and don’t give up before you start because there is a very long list of possible candidates.  How many candidates do you actually have, where were they born and when?  Get organised and make lists of them.  A spread sheet will help you do this. Methodically eliminate those who cannot possibly fit because they don’t match on what you know for sure about your John Smith. 

Be prepared to research people who will not be related to you and will be eliminated. Make up detailed notes on the final candidates into a profile sheet for each of them, along with information about close family members and as you research fit the information into what you know about them.  Note down absolutely everything from each source you find, not just birth, marriage and death information.   You must be as exact as possible and keep notes of locations, addresses, witnesses to events, occupations, anything that could help you differentiate the candidates.  Use timelines and chronology in the candidate profiles to help you visualise what was happening in the lives of each person and when.  Draw up trees and drop line pedigrees to visually show how people are connected to each other.

Using all of these techniques, you should find all but the most impenetrable ‘Which one is mine?’ questions can be solved.

Some suggested starting strategies to cope with too many candidates for any situation, before or after census and civil registration.  Use all the strategies in combination with one another:

  1. Get yourself organised and be prepared to examine each candidate in turn.
  2. Prepare to reconstruct the whole family.  This means being extra diligent to collect information about everybody, generation by generation and put them in their correct places.  Work on your ancestor and all their siblings and all their cousins.  Use those with the more unusual first names or occupations in the family first to get your starting facts about each generation correct.
  3. Seek out as many sources as possible to compare information and build up information about all possible John Smiths.  Elimination is the name of the game, so all children who are possible candidates from a baptism register must be followed up and ‘killed off’.  It sounds brutal, but is necessary. 
  4. As you research, continually narrow down possible date ranges, and pay special attention to exact locality for searching.  Attention to both date and locality helps you to eliminate a lot of candidates with a common surname. 

FACT – Most parents before the 20th century buried one or more children. But your direct ancestor lived. The high number of child deaths and burials helps you eliminate candidates who appear in GRO birth indexes and or parish baptism registers.

This article first appeared in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine in 2015

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