Harry Shanks and Catherine McPhee

When conducting genealogical research, there are many important skills that a genealogist will need to obtain, develop, and improve upon over time.  There is one particular skill, however, that is the single most important trait a genealogist needs.  This is the ability to properly analyze information.

While this skill can be implimented to overcome many brick walls and obstacles, today we will focus on the dilemma of multiple individuals with the same name.  One of the largest (and most detrimental) mistakes a genealogist can make is assuming information they found on a person with the same full name as their ancestor as being correct.  This will result in inaccurate family trees, which if posted publically on sites such as ancestry.com will lead other users into believing and recording this misinformation as well.  So when dealing with common names we need to keep in mind that a source we find (or even a family tree) may not be the correct information we are looking for.

My paternal grandmother was the daughter of Scottish immigrants named Harry Shanks and Catherine McPhee.  Both Harry and Catherine were from Glasgow, Scotland, and had very common Scottish surnames.

This proved researching my Scottish ancestry quite difficult when I discovered several people named Harry Shanks and Catherine McPhee with similar ages as mine living in Glasgow and other areas of Scotland.  Determining which ones were my great grandparents would be harder than finding Waldo in a Kilt!

What was the problem?  How did I solve it?  What did I discover?

  • The Problem:

Common Names: As I stated in the intro, the biggest problem I faced was finding multiple people with the same full names and ages as my great grandparents. Usually the best way to determine which individual is our ancestor is by locating the one that matches the most information we have of them. This proves difficult when we only have a small amount of information, and when the existing information we have matches up to more than one person.

Marriage: The common name dilemma wouldn’t have been as difficult if I were able to locate a record for Harry and Catherine Shanks in Scotland.  At this time I had no marriage record for them, and there was no evidence they were married in Scotland and/or immigrated together.  I was under the assumption that they emigrated at different times from Glasgow and met in Chicago living in the same Scottish community.

Scottish Ancestry: Many genealogy articles claim that Scottish Ancestry is among the easiest to trace. While it is true that there are more records for British Isles countries as opposed to other European countries, tracing Scottish ancestry is far from easy.  Those who think it is easy may also be the same individuals who post incorrect family trees online.  Just because you easily find Scottish records for people with the same NAME as your ancestor, this doesn’t mean these records are for the same PERSON you are looking for.

Family: I also did not have much primary source information as my grandma and her brother both passed away before I began my interest in genealogy. I knew that her brother had several children, although I had not seen them since I was young.  My dad and aunt knew more about the Shanks side of the family than the Hiebel side, although still not enough to help me go further back than their grandparents.

  • How I Solved It:

Message: During my first summer of genealogical research back in 2010 I was unable to confirm any of the information I found beyond Harry and Catherine as being accurate. Even early on, I understood that I could not assume the records I found were in fact the correct records I was looking for (they weren’t in this scenario, however were in a similar situation which I will explain in a future post).  At this point I was already at a dead end, until I received a message on ancestry.com from another user.  We began to communicate and I found out that she was the wife of one of my dad’s first cousins that I met when I was much younger!

Collaborate: This was the first person I collaborated with for genealogical research, although I have worked with many more individuals since then. Upon getting an invite for her family tree I noticed that there were names for the parents of Harry and Catherine listed!  The names for Harry’s parents were John Shanks and Elizabeth Skidmore, and Catherine’s parents were Jacob McPhee and Mary.  She had not found any sources for this information besides asking my grandma’s brother a couple years before he died.

Telephone: It turned out that some of this information was correct, and some was incorrect. Think of the game telephone; a message being passed on to several people gets slightly distorted over time due to accidental errors.  It took some thinking outside the box for me to assume the information was possibly wrong, although I ended up being right.  We couldn’t find records for John Shanks or Jacob McPhee that seemed to match.  I did, however, find information on Elizabeth Skidmore.  An Illinois Deaths and Stillbirths ancestry.com record for an Elizabeth Shanks (maiden name Skidmore) living in Chicago showed that her husband’s name was Robert Pollock Shanks, and her parents were Thomas Skidmore and Mary Fisher.  I also ended up finding Harry’s immigration papers which showed that his mother was an E. Shanks still living in Glasgow.  With more information I ended up discovering that Robert Pollock Shanks was in fact the father of Harry Shanks, and Elizabeth Skidmore was correctly labeled as his mother.  My 2nd great grandparents also immigrated to Chicago after my great grandparents did!

  • What I Discovered:

Between collaborating on research and thinking outside the box, I was able to successfully find the relatives of my great grandparents. I was able to trace these family lines a bit further back, however the common name dilemma once again has halted some of my research to this day.  I wouldn’t have found the correct information if I did not properly analyze all of the sources I read.  Because I knew to not assume someone with the same name of my ancestor was in fact them, I ended up eventually finding the actual information for them!  Here is some information regarding my paternal grandmother’s family line:

  • Harry Shanks: My great grandfather was born in Glasgow, Scotland.  He was the son of Robert Shanks and Elizabeth Skidmore.  Robert and Elizabeth had six other children; James, Thomas, Robert, John, Elijah, and Elizabeth.  Some of these children moved to Chicago, Illinois.
  • Catherine McPhee: My great grandmother was born in Glasgow Scotland.  She was the daughter of John McPhee and Mary Quin.  John and Mary had five other children; George, William, Agnes, John, and Sarah.
  • Robert Shanks: My 2nd great grandfather was born in Old Monkland, Scotland.  He was the son of James Shanks and Catharine Pollock.  James and Catharine had eight other children; and that is too many names for me to type.  So if you want to know, you can check out my tree on Ancestry.
  • Elizabeth Skidmore: My 2nd great grandmother was born in Kingswinford, England.  She was the daughter of Thomas Skidmore and Eliza Fisher.  Thomas and Eliza had, you guessed it, seven more children.  I probably share DNA with half the people in Scotland by now.


harry shanks

My great grandfather, Harry Shanks

catherine shanks

My great grandmother, Catherine McPhee


My 2nd great grandfather, Robert Shanks



Written by Sam

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Roots Dig

Call For A Free Consultation Today!
%d bloggers like this: