One of the tasks I am often asked to do by clients is linking one family to another.  Often the client has researched their own family but want me to make the connection to another (usually very wealthy) family of the same, or similar, name in the same area.

More often than not no link can be found and this can be for a number of reasons. The most common is that despite the names being similar they may have been quite common in that area.  It is a false belief that everyone with the same surname is related.


The Normans introduced Surnames to the Britain after 1066 and they gradually became common. What stated of as a nickname or description to identify an individual became to become the surnames handed down to the next generation.

Many of our surnames came from such descriptions, for example:  John’s son (Johnson), Andrew’s son (Andrews) or a person’s trade such as Smith (blacksmith, whitesmith etc.), Wright (wheelwright) and Carpenter.  Some names described a physical characteristic such as Long, Tall, Short, Redhead, Ginger, White and Black. They could describe where they lived or came from:  John of York could become John York. Other places include French, France, Bolton, London etc.

If you are interested in researching a name rather than a family look at joining the Guild of One name Studies.


Illiteracy was common before the mid-20th century and therefore name could (and still do) change their spellings.  My own surname has changed from Sharman to Shearman to Sherman all within one generation as the family moved around the country.  Take a moment to think about your own name and how it could (or has) been changed simply because of different accents or pronunciations.   You can read more about illiteracy in my blog ‘Could your Ancestors Read and Write?’.

 Linking Families

The only way of linking two separate families is to look at BOTH of them. It would be almost impossible to trace every ancestor for every line back to one person in the other family.  The connection, if it exists, could go back several generations.  The system of research used in linking families  is nicely shown in John William Chandler’s “The early genealogy of Edward Jenner and the Jenner family of Kempsford, Marston Meysey and Maiseyhampton” published in The Journal of Genealogy and Family History, volume 2. 

Within my own experience I did find a potential link for one of my clients only because the surname was not known in that area at all other than the proven (and very small) family of the client.  Unfortunately the records required to prove the link no longer exist, but I did prove that the person from the other family did move to the area a couple of generations earlier than the last known ancestor of my client.  Based on the evidence (and lack of evidence) I could say that it was likely the earlier individual found was the ancestor of the client’s family but it was not proven.

As with any genealogical puzzle it is often the lesser known siblings or relatives that may hold the clue.  In some personal research I was unable to find an entire family (parents and three children) from Norfolk, England after the 1871 census.  It was not until I made contact with a lady in Canada whose ancestor had the same surname, and was originally from the same county, shared a letter with me that she did not understand.  This letter proved the link between her ancestor and my family and explained that my missing family group had migrated to America in 1875.  Read more about this story here: Finding Danford – solving a 15 year old mystery.


Family History research is not just about birth, marriage & death records and census returns. Linking two families may require the use (and understanding) of several lesser known records, good detective work, and patience and of course a bit of luck. Chandler used wills in his Jenner research, I used a combination of wills, a Clergy database and other records in my client’s research and of course the letter in my own.  Published Peerage pedigrees can also help, but beware they are not as reliable as you may think.

So if you think you may be related to a Lord of the Manor simply because you have the same surname, try to answer one question – if your next door neighbour had exactly the same name as you does that mean you MUST be related?