Keeping Up With the (Benjamin) Joneses

How to track family documents when different people share the same name.

Jones surname distribution map Wales
Each occurrence of the Jones surname is indicated by a red dot. Image by Barry Griffin at (2016)

I’ve been helping a friend work on her own family’s history. My friend’s  maiden name is Jones, which is problematic simply because it is the most common surname in Wales. If you live in Wales, or even Southern England, you know exactly what I mean. The name is everywhere. My friend’s problem is tripled by the fact that each successive head of household bears the same first and last name (no middle) for four generations.

Welsh surnames are the results of an anglicized family tracking system called patronymics, meaning that all children, male and female took their father’s given name as their own surname for the duration of their lives.  The surnames of following generations took the form of the family patriarch’s first name. For example, if your father’s name was David, you would take the surname ap Dafydd, Davis, Davies, or some other form of David. If David’s father was Daniel, he would be known by David ap Daniel, or David Daniels.

The patronymic system is not limited to Great Britain, though. Take a look at this example from my Dutch ancestry:

1350 changing Dutch surnames
I haven’t figured out where the van Beveren name came from, but each surname changes by generation, based on the name of the father. It would be safe to assume that the senior Willem’s father was named Daniel.

It’s pretty easy to organize electronic files by surname. When I have enough documents under the same surname, I simply create a file with that surname, and organize each file by year of occurrence, for example a birth certificate for John Davies, born in 1820, would be included in the Davies, or Davis, file. The record would be labeled 1820 DAVIES John, but a census record for John Davies would be labeled. That way, all records for John Davies would essentially end up together in the Davies file between the years of his birth and death. Any immediately family members would have records before or after him according to their year of occurrence.

organization by date and surname
KNIGHT file. Documents are organized by year, month, day, SURNAME, given name, and middle name or initial. Other relevant information follows date and name.

My friend is older, though, and prefers to keep each family’s file in a binder, which works too. I use both systems when I am dealing with primary sources (such as photographs and original documents like birth, marriage, and death certificates). It’s always good to have digital back-up. Her problem, she explained, was that she could not keep track of four individuals in her family tree named Benjamin Jones: Her great-great grandfather, her great grandfather, her grandfather, and her uncle. Using my system, I explained how to use birth years of each individual to organize them and to put documents for the most recent Benjamin Jones first.  Instead of including creating a fourth file for her uncle, his documents were included with the rest of his siblings in her grandfather’s family group, so she only needed three new tabs.

documents ordered by birth year and given name, then surname. If each ancestor had the same given and surnames, I would have easily been able to distinguish between ancestors by looking at the birth year.

Tabbed inserts don’t work in binders where documents are kept in protective sleeves; they are too narrow to easily distinguish between family sections. I fold a 2×2 post-it note in half and tape it to both sides of a protective sleeve instead of tabbed pages for file sections. My friend chose to purchase adhesive tabs made expressly for that purpose. Either way, an attached tab works best anytime you are working with protective sleeves. All you need to write on each tab is the birth year and first name of the head of household and work backwards chronologically. It didn’t take long, and now my friend can see at a glance which Benjamin Jones is which.

8 thoughts on “Keeping Up With the (Benjamin) Joneses

  1. I have so many relatives with the same name and often born close in time because of Ashkenazi naming patterns. Several first cousins can all have the same name for a deceased grandfather, and then their grandchildren can have the same name as well. I have so many Abraham Mansbachs on my tree that I use Roman numerals to keep them straight. I am not sure I understand how your system works, but if it works for you, that’s all that matters!

    Before Jews were required to adopt surnames, they also used a patronymic system but just using the father’s first name as the second name, e.g., Isaac ben Abraham. It makes it almost impossible to find relatives before 1800 because the same name could have been used by so many people in one community!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Date first followed by surname, then given name. If the family member was born, or event happened, in the same year, then begin with the birth year followed by month and day. Here’s an example from my Ashkenazic files: 1865_2_21 ABELES Franziska.
      Speaking of Ashkenazi name confusion, the only family members we have identified as victims of the Holocaust are my great aunt and great-great aunt, both named Rosa Abeles. And yes, we are having a heck of a time finding our Ashkenazi family members in Europe for the same reasons!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for the example—very smart approach. I usually organize my files by family—with subfiles for their children and then subfiles within the subfile for the next generation, and so on. On my tree I sometimes insert the father’s first name in parenthesis so I know which Jacob Goldberg or whatever I am looking for.

        So sad about your great-aunt and great-great-aunt. Each time I find a relative who was killed in the Holocaust, it takes my breath away.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Sharon! I can’t take the credit though. Nearly every hack I have was “stolen” from another genealogist who taught it to me. This came from a class I took at the Springville Family History Library in Utah. I haven’t used anything else since!

      Liked by 1 person

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