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Comparing ‘John Hancocks’ may help those climbing family tree

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By Liz Myers
Questing Heirs Genealogical Society

Very few of us have ancestors with names like Marcus Welby or Jed Clampett— distinctive names that are rarely duplicated. Both first names and family names associated with specific ethnic groups can be quite common. For the Irish, saint names such as Patrick, Michael and John are popular, as are surnames like Kelly, Flynn, and Martin. For the Germans, common first names are Johannes, Frederick and Jacob. Common surnames include Schmidt, Meyer, and Krauss.
So, if you find a certificate that you think was signed by an ancestor who had a common name, how can you be sure it is him?


How about comparing his signature on the document with one that you know he signed? Signatures do not change very much, even over decades. Recently, I helped a friend trace her family back to Europe by matching the signature on the will of her relative in New York state with the signature of a man by the same name in Switzerland. They matched exactly, even though the signatures were made 60 years apart. Through matching the two signatures, she was able to confirm that the two men were the same person, which led her to locate the village in Switzerland where her family originated.
Even if the content of a signature varies a bit because someone signed a variation on his name, there might still be elements in the signature that you can compare. Figure 1 is a photograph of the Seaman’s Protection Certificate for a Peter Fitzpatrick, signed in Philadelphia in 1852. During most of the 1800s, American sailors carried these documents to prove they were citizens of the U.S. so that they would not be impressed into the British navy. This was especially important for the naturalized Irish who could easily be mistaken for British citizens. Each certificate carried a physical description of its bearer, with his signature and that of a witness.

My great-great grandfather Peter Fitzpatrick was a seaman in the mid 1800s after he emigrated to the U.S. from Ireland. I hoped that the Seaman’s Protection Certificate was his, but I had no evidence that he was ever in Philadelphia. Furthermore, this document predated by six years any other information we had on him.
I was finally able to identify the Peter on the certificate as my ancestor by comparing the signature on the Seaman’s Protection Certificate (photo 1) with that on his marriage certificate with his second wife Mary Hanlon (photo 2). Although the man who applied for his seaman’s certificate signed his name as Peter, and my relative signed his marriage certificate as Patrick, I had no doubt that they were the same man. The two first names share a “P” , a “t” and an “r” , and appear to be identical. The two signatures of “Fitzpatrick” also appear to be identical. By comparing the signatures on the two documents, I could be certain that they were signed by the same man, my great-great grandfather Peter Fitzpatrick.

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Comparing ‘John Hancocks’ may help those climbing family tree