This question is general to all inquiries where a person has differing last names in multiple records. In my particular case, I am researching my 3rd great grandfather Simon Zoller (1840-1902) and I have noticed that his last name differs in many records during his lifetime. I have found records with the first names of Simon and Simeon and the last names of Zoller, Zollar, Zolar, Soler, and Solar in marriage, census, and death records. Since his last name is not consistent, I want to be absolutely sure I have the right person when I attach documents to him in my family tree application.

To complicate matters, I was not previously aware of the name of his first wife. According to 1870 US census, the oldest child in the household was born around 1860 but my 3rd great grandmother Caroline was born around 1848. Due to the unlikelihood of her being a mother at the age of 12, I have concluded that she must have been his second wife and I have been looking for records of his first wife. I found some marriage records for a potential first wife Margaret (but no death record) using the familysearch.org with the last name Solar, but how can I be sure I have the right person? My grandfather thinks it unlikely that my ancestor would be called Solar in any records so I am trying to amass enough data in order to definitively say I have identified his first wife.

This is the data I have been using to tell myself I have the right person and not a person with a similar name:

  • Matching or similar first name.
  • Matching or similar last name.
  • Matching birth year.
  • Matching birth state.
  • Matching occupation.
  • Matching residence (city, county, and/or state).
  • Marriage date to first wife fits the timeframe of the birth of the first child.
  • Daughter born the same year as marriage to second wife also is named Margaret.
  • 1860 census record for Simeon and Margaret Soler live nearby a Phillip Soler, whose birth date and state match brother Phillip Zoller in 1850 census.

How can I be sure I have the right person? What criteria need to be met for a genealogist to conclude that two records are referencing the same person, despite differences in name spelling? What particular data points and how many data points does one need to conclude that there was not a similarly named person living in the area around the same time and that I in fact have the right person?

  • 3
    This may sound backward, but sometimes, if you suspect that there may have been other similarly named people in the area, you can actually do some research seeking them (the ones you don't think are your relatives, thereby disproving that they are in your line. For instance, if you found three Solers, Solars, Zollers in a phone book or church directory. And you never know, they may connect to your family tree further up. Oct 17, 2012 at 5:16
  • 2
    Another thing to keep in mind is the certainty with which you know that the person in question was born in 1848. What is the evidence for this? Is it corroborated or contradicted by other sources? Prior to the 20th century, ages were often approximated, so unless you have a birth record, I would also entertain the theory that the person may have been born later. Oct 17, 2012 at 5:40
  • 2
    @CanadianGirlScout: Your comment sounds a lot like an answer -- you should post it. (Comments are potentially temporary and SE staff/mods will occasionally go on a rampage deleting comments. Also, comments do not show up in search engines, whereas answers do.)
    – bstpierre
    Oct 17, 2012 at 12:13
  • @bstpierre Hi, thanks. I didn't know comments were considered temporary or that they weren't indexed. I didn't post it as an answer because I didn't feel that it was a complete answer. ColeValleyGirl gives it a nod in her more fully realized answer, which is more likely to become an 'accepted answer'. Oct 17, 2012 at 13:34
  • Please edit your question to add some location specifics. Consider also that if we are referring to US Census, it is not until 1880 that census call out relationships among household members.
    – GeneJ
    Oct 17, 2012 at 13:55

2 Answers 2


There isn't a simple list of data points that will allow you to "tick the box" that you have the right person. The Genealogical Proof Standard , which is adopted by many genealogy and family history researchers as best practice, is a 5-step process of assembling and assessing the evidence in support of a conclusion, and documenting the reasoning by which the conclusion is judged to be proved.

The 5 steps in the process are:

  1. Conduct a reasonably exhaustive search for all information that is or may be pertinent to the identity, relationship, event or situation in question;
  2. Collect and include in our compilation a complete, accurate citation to the source or sources of each item of information we use;
  3. Analyze and correlate the collected information to assess its quality as evidence;
  4. Resolve any conflicts caused by items of evidence that contradict each other or are contrary to a proposed (hypothetical) solution to the question;
  5. Arrive at a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.

In your case, as Canadian Girl Scout says, you may need to research all the individuals you suspect of being or not-being Simon Zoller from the cradle to the grave (as far as you are able) to prove or disprove that they are the same person.

It's very tempting to assume that two candidate individuals with the same or similar names born in the same or similar places at the same or similar time are the same person. Which is why, early in my family history research, I spent a lot of time researching the ancestry of Samuel Wood Brooks born 1840 in Nottinghamshire when I should have been researching his cousin Samuel Brookes born 1837 in Nottinghamshire. The names were similar, the parents' names were the same, the birth year was a reasonable match (given the inaccuracy of ages in census records), the occupations were similar enough to be a plausible match... but it wasn't until I tracked both of them from cradle to grave that I established they couldn't be the same person.

  • Ha! I rarely if ever consider "cradle to the grave" research about those who are not related to me.
    – GeneJ
    Oct 17, 2012 at 21:27

Benny asks the questions that sometimes keep us up at night and keep us coming back for more, "How do I know ...?" "How can I be sure?"

"What criteria need to be met for a genealogist to conclude that two records are referencing the same person, despite differences in name spelling?"

You've probably heard the saying, "You can't draw blood from a turnip." For most of my Ohio families, there is simply not enough identifying information in a marriage and a census record of the day from which a high confidence conclusion can be drawn (based solely on the information in those records). Add, of course, that each bit of information in the records is subject to error/variation and omission.

The key is to learn more information about the person--that means learning the area history and moving beyond BMD and census to the good stuff--land records and plat maps, court and probate, newspaper notices and obituaries, cemetery records, etc.

Begin by learning about the available record groups. Some general approaches to nailing down the available local records are available here, "How to research ..." Consider contacting the local genealogical society, too, if you haven't already done so.

Make a plan/prioritize the work. This process depends likely on your access to research centers and where your ancestors lived. Some record groups will be more accessible than others and not all the records are likely to be indexed/easy to work with. Based on what you learn about the record groups and what you know already about your ancestors, you can prioritize the work with the different record groups. (I usually develop my own index of records for a surname, then decide which of those records I want to investigate further.)

Put it to work. ColeValleyGirl outlined the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) principles, but you might consider Tom Jones work on inferential genealogy. A short discussion and information about this course was given here.

"What particular data points and how many data points does one need to conclude that there was not a similarly named person living in the area around the same time and that I in fact have the right person?"

The answer to that will vary for each unique individual and the different record circumstance. The GPS and Jones' course, Inferential Genealogy, will help. Jones says that all genealogical questions fall into two categories--those of relationship and those of identity. Asking the questions in that way may help you to categorize the information you have and clarify the conflicts you are able to identify.

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