August 20, 2021
Most genealogists know that they need to take care not to conflate two people with the same name. It’s sometimes easy to confuse two folks with the same name, especially if it’s a common name – something like John Brown. However, it would seem that more unusual names would be less likely to become confused. As it turns out, that’s not really true.
I recently had a brush with mistaken identity – not in my genealogy life but in my personal life. One day I received a phone message from someone who seemed to know me, called me by my first name and who wanted to renew our acquaintance. He stated he was looking at all of the “nice things” I’d sent to him and wondered if I’d like to get back in touch. His name was garbled in the message, but his location was Oakland. I know no one in Oakland. I do sometimes do genealogical research for folks and, of course, I’m always interested in hearing from distant cousins. This man didn’t seem to fit either of those categories, and, wary of scams, I just deleted the message.
A week or so later a package from Oakland, California, arrived in my mailbox. I still didn’t recognize the sender’s name, but opened it anyway. It was a clutch of seemingly hand-drawn postcards with messages to the sender all signed by “Carol Stetser.” It was odd to see my name affixed to notes I’d never written, especially since the handwriting was definitely not mine.
After I recovered from the surprise, I realized that there must be another Carol Stetser out there somewhere. Since I’m a genealogist who loves to research I figured I could find the “other” Carol. When I googled my name, a few hits popped up that were for me, mostly concerning genealogy and my involvement over the years with Larimer County Genealogical Society here in Colorado. There were, however, quite a few more hits for a Carol Stetser who was originally from upstate New York and seemed to be a poet/artist. We are both approximately the same age, but that seems to be the only connection between us. I can’t see that we are related, either biologically or through marriage, in any way.
I’m quite certain that my recent brush with mistaken identity came about simply because my name is fairly unusual. The man in Oakland found references to Carol Stetser (most likely from an online search) and assumed that there could only be one. He proceeded to contact what he thought was his old friend but found me instead.
Genealogists sometimes do the same thing; they find an ancestor online or in some other record. Because the ancestor has an unusual name, they make the assumption that every record they find for that unusual name is for the same person. After all, how many Carol Stetser’s could there be in the world? I now know that the answer to that question is “more than one.”
It’s just one more reason not to make assumptions when doing genealogical research. Just as in in my modern story, historical folks often had the same names. Attaching the wrong records to the wrong person is a great way to scramble a family tree. Make it easy on those who follow in your footsteps by making sure that you know whose trail you’re actually following.
By the way, I returned the packet to the man in Oakland with a note explaining “I’m not the Carol you’re looking for!” Hope that he eventually finds the one he is looking for.
Researcher/Director at Large