Monday 10 June 2024

The Confusion of Similar Names

 In our family research, we have all run up against situations where we have two or more individuals with the same or similar names, born about the same time and living in the same area, any of whom could be our ancestor. Sometimes you can only guess which is the one that fits your family the best.

I was corresponding with a cousin last week about the common ancestors we have in Cornwood, Devon, England. In my years as an Online Parish Clerk, I have acquired and transcribed thousands of entries in the baptism marriage and burial registers and on the multiple census records for the area.

Anyway, we were discussing a Mary Maddock who was our common ancestral connection. In Cornwood, there were two children baptized with that name, one in 1699, to parents Robert and Sarah (James) Maddock, and the other in 1701, to parents Richard and Elizabeth (Heard) Maddock. There were a couple of others born around the same time in neighbouring areas, but we thought one from Cornwood would be a better bet since both our families had connections to that parish and the descendants of our Mary Maddock lived in that area.

One married James Collins/Collings, on 6 January 1725-26, in Plympton St. Mary parish, next door. My cousin and I both share ancestors with the Collins family. James and Mary (Maddock) Collins had three children born in Plympton St. Mary and then three more in Cornwood. One daughter, Mary Collins (1735-1797), married Richard Shepheard (1726-1803) in Cornwood in 1761. They are my 5th great-grandparents. Another daughter, Susannah, married Stephen Sandover and they are my cousin’s 5th great-grandparents.

The other Mary Maddock married John Edwards, also in Cornwood, on 11 May 1727. The Edwards family are ancestral to my Crispin line. Mary Crispin (1800-1884) married William Carpenter (1796-1877) in 1796. Their daughter, Mary Crispin Carpenter (1830-1890) married John Shepheard (1830-1901) and are my 2nd great-grandparents. John was also the great-grandson of Richard and Mary (Collins) Shepheard.

Our main problem is we cannot confirm which Mary Maddock married James Collins and which married John Edwards. The baptism, burial and marriage registers have no details that would indicate who their parents were or what age they were when they married and died. But, as it turns out, both couples are my 6th great-grandparents.

As a solution, rightly or wrongly, I decided that the oldest Mary Maddock would have married first and the younger one married later. Thus, my tree has the Mary born in 1699 as the wife of James Collins and the one born in 1701 as the wife of John Edwards.

It does not get any easier fleshing out the families. We think that both James and John were not born in Cornwood but can find no record that is a definitive match. We have only tentative burial dates for all four people but, again, cannot confirm them. And common forenames like John and James don’t give us a narrow list of possible candidates. More confusion!

One aspect in support of my decision about which Mary married which man was in looking at the names of their children. John and Mary Edwards had children named Elizabeth and Richard, which were also the parents’ names for the Mary Maddock born in 1701. That seemed to connect these families.

Given the dates we are looking at – late 17th century – it will be difficult to trace either of the Maddock families much further back in Cornwood. All the parish registers compiled before 1685 were destroyed in a fire in the Churchwarden’s home in that year.

Sometimes you have limited data that will confirm relationships. In these cases, you have to make what may be reasoned guesses. I think I have done this for my two Mary Maddocks, based on age, marriage date and children’s names. Perhaps one day blood connections through DNA tests may help narrow down the options.