If you are fairly new to building your family tree, you may have begun to find that the information you thought was about your ancestor – isn’t. There were several with your ancestor’s name and similar dates, living in the same town and buried in the same cemetery. How can you be sure you have the correct person and details?

Naming Patterns:

If you have listed out several family groups of your ancestors, your mother’s and your father’s lines, you may have already noticed some familiar naming patterns for the children. Perhaps one specific line of your mother’s family always used names like Elizabeth/Sarah/Mary/George/John/Joseph. Perhaps another line used different names such as Sophia/Lucinda/Charlotte/Benjamin/Francis/Samuel.

You may have found that at least one son, the eldest, always was named after the father, or the father’s father. And a daughter, the eldest, named after the mother. Additionally, a mother’s maiden name, or a grandmother’s maiden name, may have been used as a first or second name for one or more of the sons or daughters.

These patterns – if you can see any pattern – can be one of your best clues as to whether or not that gravestone lists your ancestor, or is a non-direct-related person. (The relation may be 3rd or 4th cousins, or more).

Collateral Lines or Sidelines:

Your ancestors’ siblings, aunts and uncles, are collateral lines – that is, they are not in your direct line of descent. If you were to fill out a 5-generation pedigree form, their names would not even show. But, they are excellent clues for evaluating the relationship of a buried ancestor to your line. You may well find that great-aunts and uncles named their children after their brother or sister (your direct line), so that there may well be 3-5 or more children of the same name and surname in the same town or county! Oh my – that can be very confusing!!

Follow lines down and then back up again to be sure of your direct line. You may find that you have used the gravestone details of a cousin rather than your direct ancestor. Take a look at the specific area that your ancestor lived in as well. On maps, check to see what cemeteries are/were available in the area. There may be older cemeteries with all names and details listed, including your specific ancestors. I have found one line of ancestors who are buried in three different cemeteries in one area, and only by comparing every detail I could find, was I able to be certain I had the correct person. Getting a photograph of the stone from all sides helped me in this situation.


In general, families tended to stay close together in one area. At times, one adult child would move further away to settle in a new area. Daughters when they married, might move away with their husband, making it rather challenging finding them! Sometimes a widowed mother or sister would live with a far-away married daughter, showing up on a state or federal census record. There are many ways to find living people, and also to understand how it is that one ancestor is buried far far away from the rest of the family.

When you find one definite ancestor buried in a cemetery, search in a circle around that area for approximately 50-100 miles away, for additional ancestors. One of my ancestors from Maine ended up all the way over to the West coast in Washington, and I eventually found his sister’s family as well as one of his son-in-law’s relatives joined them in the same area. A treasure-trove of ancestor details became available – once I figured out who was related to whom in this new setting.


Never assume that all the details carved on the gravestone are accurate. They should be, they usually are, but once carved, they were not corrected! Also, people were not always accurate in their birth year, so expect 2-5 years’ error in birth years on gravestones. Look for additional details on a gravestone – they may be clues to your ancestors’ membership in societies, military experience, reputation in area, occupation, and more. Photographs are so helpful, as you can imagine.

Sometimes children’s names and details were also carved on the same stone, but on another side of the stone. First wives may be buried in the same plot as subsequent wives, so check details as carefully as possible. You will need to compare with other sources such as censuses, marriage registrations, obituaries, and more, to know each person buried in that particular grave site.

While a personal trip is recommended, if that is not possible, find out if the local genealogy society is recording the cemetery. They may have already photographed or transcribed all details, or may be willing to do this for you on request. Because they live in the area, they may also have additional information on your ancestors or about the cemetery, or on other cemeteries in the area which may include more of your ancestors.

Finally – Assumptions.

Make none. Assume that all information is tentative and probable until you can confirm the information with another document or two. Pencil your records until you have confirmed the data. Particularly, do not input an individual into your family tree until you have done all the checking possible. If you are uncertain or have not been able to confirm data, add “Not Proven” to their death place – in this way, you can find all of your Not Proven ancestors quickly by checking on your family tree names list! Or, make sure you have noted that an ancestor is not proven on their family group sheet so that you can continue to check for documents over time.

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