Genealogy has its serendipitous moments, where a mere turn of the page can produce a new branch on a family tree; but most of the time, family history work takes good time consuming genealogy research to achieve a well-documented pedigree. And so it is when genealogists are faced with brickwall research of multiple people having the same name in the same location at the same time in a historical record. In this the genealogy conundrum, researchers must be willing to devote considerable time and skill to discovering, documenting, cataloguing and categorizing the details of their research to properly identify real ancestry.

Many a time we have had to share The Tale of Two Marys to show how these important details help us correctly distinguish, identify and document one person from another of the same name.

It’s in the Details

About 30 years ago while attending a Stake Lagoon Day, we came face to face with our very own conundrum, The Tale of Two Marys. We had just arrived at one of the picnic pavilions reserved for our Stake festivities when we heard my wife’s name come over the loud speaker, “Sister Mary Ellen Gleason, please come to the ticket office.” What a shocker to hear that name we knew so well. Surrounded by Mormons, we couldn’t imagine who wanted her and why; but boy, did we know that name. It was Mary’s maiden name, complete with the LDS title of “Sister.” Only one problem; Mary hadn’t been called that in the 10 years we had been married, because as my wife, she was now known as Sister Mary Ellen Petty. Who would be using her maiden name, calling her Sister, right here at Lagoon; had some clerk brought the wrong clean-up list to the park?

Multiple times, the name was called; and finally, we went to the office to find out who wanted Mary. Much to our surprise, we got there about the same time as a black-robed Catholic Nun, and heard her identify herself as Sister Mary Ellen Gleason, of Chicago.

Wait a minute, we thought; our Mary was born in Chicago!   What was the likelihood of two women from that metropolis having the same name of Sister Mary Ellen Gleason being in the same place at the same time – at Lagoon! Boy, did we all get a good laugh that day as we sorted out which Sister they were looking for! Thank heavens we knew the details of our lives and relationships and got the right Sister for the time and place that day.

No Laughing Matter

Such a duplication of names isn’t a laughing matter in genealogy research. When a multitude or even just a few people have the same name in the same county record or in a census, or newspaper account, research becomes very challenging. Everyone must be untangled and correctly identified. This can be a very time consuming process and is no easy task.

Unfortunately, too many researchers don’t know how to tell who is who; and all too often, when there is more than one person with the same name, research can go bad real fast. Multiple people listed with the same or similar name, can create a brick wall, or worse, send you off on the wrong track. Genealogists must learn how to distinguish between people with the same names.

When you do family history work, it is very important that you properly identify and document each name so as you work through your pedigree, you can have a solid base of knowledge and sound evidence on who is who. When you do research, you must go from the known to the unknown. And that’s where the details about ancestry become very important – to help us distinguish between, what we call the “Two Mary’s” syndrome. We must remember each name is an individual person with their own identifiers. And researchers must become familiar with those details so they can separate everyone in the records they are studying.

Details: Names, dates, places, collateral relationships, occupations, race, age, marital status, etc.

Details, and especially details that can be documented, are the lifeblood of genealogy research. And when you are doing research in records where names are duplicated, these details are even more important. They must be gathered, separated, and categorized by the individual. And a careful study of the documentation must be made so you can determine what is known, what is supposed, and what might be.

When you do genealogical research, you must first write down all you know about someone, the facts of their life and their relationships; and then see what kind of documentation you have for the facts. Are they stories your grandma told you, or do you have real documents that support your choices as to who is your right ancestor? Do all the facts line up or are there some discrepancies? Are the differences a result of second hand information as happens a lot in a census which historically can be riddled with mistakes put in by a well-meaning enumerator or not-too-well-informed provider? Or were they found in a record created by a primary witness? Researchers must weigh the value of the evidence and its source; is it first hand or more like the game of telephone.

Once you have listed all these details, then you are ready to look at new records. If you find multiple people listed with the same name, compare the new details that you learn with what you already know and have documented.   Little by little a picture will form about who the people are that you are studying. You will be able to winnow your way through the logjam, because you are working from a known starting place and understanding. You are building on a sure foundation. So, the next time you run into two Marys in your research, make the most of the details of their lives to help you learn the truth about your family tree.


James W. Petty, AG, CG is the Board-Certified and Accredited Professional Genealogist, “Climbing the Family Tree Professionally Since 1969”. He is President of HEIRLINES Family History & Genealogy, Inc. (, the “Salt Lake City, Utah BBB Accredited Business” trusted professional genealogy research services firm, providing US and International genealogical and historical research for a world-wide clientele.

For Heirlines-Quality professional genealogy services, resources, and products including free genealogy, LDS Family History advice and expert answers to commonly asked ancestry questions, visit Jim’s website for free consultations and ordering custom family tree research services, and his genealogy blog