Distinguishing two people with the same name

When writing about two or more people with the same name, what is the best way to distinguish their identies for the reader?  In the case I am currently developing, I've got a father and son, a possible grandfather, a nephew and a great nephew all with the same name.  They did not, however, generally distinguish themselves in records being used as evidence.  I've seen situations where people just invent a name, such as "Sam Jones, Sr," "Sam Jones, Jr." and "Sam Jones III," yet no records call them by that name with the generational suffix appended. Is it better to use numbers, Roman numerals, or letters?  Should these be set off between parentheses, brackets, or something else? Or is there a better way? Should there be an initial citation or footnote explaining the system being used?  Any advice would be appreciated!  Erick Montgomery

Submitted byEEon Sat, 09/06/2014 - 17:56

Erick, considering how common this problem is, one would think that a convenient practice could have been developed. To my knowledge, it hasn't. EE cannot recommend adding appendages such as Sr., Jr., or III, because those terms are shape-shifters, and because--as you say--the records often offer no evidence that they were known by those labels, and because our creation of those labels could confuse others or lead them astray.

In my own writing--and during the years that I edited a peer-reviewed journal--I've handled the situation differently from one time to the next. The one consistency is that I seek, for each person, one distinguishing feature that applies to that person alone. Then, when I introduce that person, I prominently reference that one element. That lays the groundwork for thereafter speaking of each as "the minister John," or "John of Brushy Creek," etc.

If you devise some other system, then EE would say Yes, do explain it to your readers, up front. That, of course, provides no safety to the name-gatherers who simply copy pages that have names-of-interest without actually studying the context in which those names appear--which puts us back to the caveat in paragraph 1, above.

I'll post a query at EE's FB page and invite other opinions.

I have a similar situation with several generations of the same name, fathers, sons, uncles and cousins even in the same generation.  I have taken to distinguishing them by birth year (many were born in the same place and were farmers), calling them Asahel of 1845 or Asahel of 1805.  At least it keeps my mind clear!

Submitted byp_pierceon Sun, 06/28/2015 - 09:26

Hmm. I have a line in which every John in lineal descent has been given Sr, Jr, III and IV. Every researcher descended from Sr. uses these appendages, even though they aren't used in actual records for these Johns. It isn't confusing for us descendants. Whether correctly or not (I don't know) I have written of them as John B-----, styled Jr., etc. This is a fairly well-researched line as Jr is a proven Rev. War Patriot. We probably should stop referring to them as such, but I'm pretty sure that ship has sailed. 

Submitted byEEon Sun, 06/28/2015 - 10:15

That is an often-seen problem, p_pierce. Of course, for genealogists working a lineage, the appropriate solution would be John1, John2, John3, John4, etc.