How to Identify an Ancestor of Uncertain Identity

Trent has a question about his West Virginia ancestor’s identity:

My ancestor, Ivy Inice Powell (1874-?) is the most elusive ancestor I’ve researched. I believe I found her on an 1874 Birth record for Marion County, West Virginia. The thing is the person is listed as Ivines Powell. I searched every similar name I could think of, I even used “Iv*” to see if anything would come up. I found no other person in West Virginia that matched her information as closey as Ivines did, the birtdate is only a month apart, and she was born in the right county. She was also married in the same county as Ivines’ parents.I have tried every name variation for both first and last, but I believe it is the same person based on the unusual name “Ivy Inice” it seems that “Ivines” is a mixture of the two. I only found her on a marriage record and the 1900-1910 census, and then she disappears. Do you think that, based on the similarities between the two people, that they are actually the same person?

This name has only been used 1 time for her, I have tried online searches and went to the library (Downtown Columbus has a huge Genealogy department) but nothing ever turned up. I tried looking for name similarities in the children but found none. I found her name listed as Alice on her daughters death record, but every other record has ver as Ivy or Inice. I cannot find a death record, I know she divorced her husband but I don’t believe she remarried, so she either kept Hillberry or went back to Powell. I used the West Virginia archives and history website for the records.

Trent also included two record copies:

The supposed birth record for Ivy Inice/Ivines:


And the marriage record between of “Ivy Inice” to Trent’s ancestor:


Trent, misspelled names and name variations are a hallmark of genealogy research!

Because of literacy rates, re-copying of records from original sources into indexes, and other human errors, it is very common to find several different names for one person. To locate more records for Ivy/Ivines/Ivy I. so that you can more clearly establish who she was and what name she went by most often, I recommend you take the following three steps:
  1. Make a chart of everything you already know about Ivy, from the records you’ve already found. I’ll provide an example below.
  2. Expand your research to include offline records and known associates, as shown below. Note that the records you sent to me are only index entries–the actual birth records and marriage certificate remain to be found!
  3. If all the entries in the chart (from online AND offline records) don’t clearly tell you who Ivy is, draft a proof argument in which you make that conclusion on your own. I will show you how, below.

Now I’m going to give you the breakdown for these three steps:

1) Make a chart.

Take all the records–even interviews with relatives about Ivy!–and plot their information on a spreadsheet. I have started one here, based on the two records you provided to me, to show you how this might look:

Sample chart for Ivy's records

Sample chart for Ivy’s records

2) Expand your research to include offline records.

If you’ve never worked in offline records before, You can learn how it is done in the following tutorial:

When I followed the steps in the offline research article, I found a lot of great records on film for Taylor County, West Virginia, where Ivy was married:


In the image above, note how there are 13 different vital records collections (posted at the bottom of the page)? Well, when I click on the arrow next to “vital records,” I’m shown a list of collections that will definitely be of interest to you:


Be sure to look in these records for Ivy, her husband, her siblings, and any known associates, as their records will tell you a lot as well! Enter their information into your chart whenever it pertains to Ivy’s identity, or provides you with the smallest clues to her whereabouts at any given time

3) If the online AND offline records don’t clearly tell you Ivy’s name, whereabouts, and parentage, you can prove her identity and parentage yourself, by drafting a proof summary.

You can also read a sample proof summary here, and a how-to article here.

One example of a proof argument–that you will definitely want to study for ideas!–is available in this summer’s edition of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly. Here are the article’s details:

Laurel T. Baty, “Parentage of Martha Smith of Alabama and Mississippi: Overcoming Inconsistent, Incorrect, and Mission Records,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly101 (June 2013): 85-102.

Trent, once you are able to prove Ivy’s identity–whether via the records or your proof summary–you will have a story worth publishing in periodicals like the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, so be sure to keep a detailed set of research notes as you go! 🙂

Good luck, and please keep me posted as you progress through these three steps!

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3 thoughts on “How to Identify an Ancestor of Uncertain Identity

  1. I think maybe they are the same person. I know that I have issues with my paternal mothers name – its spelled at least 4 different ways. You might want to try; its by the Latter Day Saints and I found some of my family info though them that I wasn’t able to find before.


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