How to Research a Brown line


Hints for Researching Common Surnames

When bringing the Henritze line in America forward from Balthaser Henritze and Dorothea (Rapp) Henritze of Reading, there is one daughter who married Conrad Braun, son of Matthias and Maria Braun. Unless the line dies out, there is a Brown line from that point forward. The name was anglicized to Brown and while I have discovered more than two hundred descendants of Christina (Henritze) Brown and Conrad Brown, I don't spend as much time on this branch. When a Brown family member leaves the greater Reading area, I search a little bit and then that branch might also go into the "later" pile. A Brown, Wilson, Smith, Jones or Johnson line blocks the way to more easily researched surnames.

  • Skip it; postpone it; research another line.
  • Avoid your line and research a branch most likely to be differientiatible by name; by geography; by migration; by occupation.
  • Switch direction. Find a researcher going in the opposite direction and link the lines. Go forward to go backward and go backward to go forward.
  • Line out each local Brown family and reduce the pile down to the plausible families. Search each of those until the connection is proven or disproven.



Move on doesn't sound like much of a plan, but given a finite amount of resources, it works. Research another line instead. When I first started researching, I had access to the tremendous resources at the WRHS Library in Cleveland, books, film, newspapers, fiche, indices, abstracts, transcripts, mug books, manuscript files, genealogies and family histories, with much the same results as you find on the Internet now. You could start a line work it back a couple generations and then need to send away by mail for a specific marriage. While you were waiting for that information, you started another line. You ended up researching all eight or sixteen main lines at once, while waiting for specific linking data from wills, marriages, deeds or other sources.


AVOID IT - DIFFERENTIATE branches by ease of research - Find Another line - Choose an easier option. 

Sometimes you just have to break down and research the Brown line. It may be that you are ready for a tough one or it may be that your choice is a Brown line or a Johnson line. When you start with a surname like Brown, then there you are, in the hard part. What can you do to lessen the grief and difficulty of researching a "top ten" surname? The pure quantity of unrelated people sharing the same surname can be astounding, all those non-family members, all those wrong lines in one geographic space. Find a Brown line within the extended nuclear family that you can search; research that branch of the family instead of, or in addition to, your branch. Their records may have information and connections to yours and their line may be much simpler to search. Vary by surnames, given names, naming patterns, geography, migration, religion, economic class and occupation.


Two web sites for a quick check of the relative scarcity of a surname are the social security death benefits index and the Find-A-Grave website. I research a Brown family from Reading, Pennsylvania. Amongst others, this family has married into the Baum, Fegely, Fehl, Maicks, Rote, Rothenberger, Rowe, Simmat, Stoeckel, Wilson, Willson and Zeugner families. All of those families except the Wilson family would be relatively easier and faster to research. Look for a surname that is unusual, easily spelled, easily pronounced, with few logical spelling variants. Avoid a common name, difficult spelling, difficult pronunciation, and multiple logical spelling variations. No Smiths, Wilsons or Johnsons. Concentrate on siblings or children who married into families with much less common surnames like Simmat, Baum or Sobocinski, NOT to another top ten or even top fifty surname.

Given Names

Avoid common first names like John, Mary, William and Elizabeth, common nicknames like Jack, Polly, Bill, or Betsy or men known by their initials instead of their given names. I once worked with a man called I. J. His name could have been Isaiah, Ichabod, Ivan, Ian, Ignatius, Irvin, Irwin, Irving, Ismael, Isidore, any of those, it was certainly something he didn't want to be called. It took me the longest time to remember his first name was Iver. I can not remember his middle name at all. I have a suspicion he was named for his father and his grandfather, however, without a first name, searching him would be long and hard. Concentrate on siblings or children with less common given names like Lester, Letitia, Stanley and Sarafina and unusual given names, Archimedes, Orestes and Leander, multiple names Mary Louise aka Mary Lou, John Scott and James Ewell Brown. If you must search a common first name, choose a John, Thomas or William who did not marry Elizabeth, Sarah or Mary, but instead married Grace, Amelia or Pearl. A sibling with a more unusual first name, Harrison Carey or Gile Willson will be easier to find than William Carey or John Willson. Unless of course that unusual name is accompanied by a suffix, Sr., Jr., I, II, III or IV, like Emil Raymond Breitenstein I, II and III. Search the branch that kept using given names like Conrad, Matthias, Frederick, Christian or Valentine instead of the branch that chose Tom, Dick and Harry. Obituaries with those uncommon given names and the surname Brown will be fewer and far between.

Three distinctive naming patterns come to mind, first son named for paternal grandfather so every other generation was Henry, then Richard. First son named for father, Burton Milnor Hamilton I, II, III and IV. First son named for maternal grandfather, second son named for paternal grandfather, third son named for father.


  • Stable Political Geography vs. Variable political geographic boundaries including multiple complicated boundary changes, annexation, boundary disputes, surveying errors and river bed changes. Counties, towns and boroughs annex property and change boundaries, for example the City and County of Denver annexed part of rural Adams Co. for Denver International Airport (DIA) twenty years ago. Boundary disputes are another example, Virginia and Tennessee had a compromise line surveyed in 1802 and the Supreme court decision 30 April 1900, 177 U. S. 501, with various disputes in between. Disputes can be caused by monuments disappearing, surveying errors, and rivers changing course. The most famous political boundary change would have been the creation of the state of West Virginia in 1863.
  • Simple vs. Complex Political Geography. Lineville is a small town in Grand River Township, Wayne Co., Iowa. South Lineville, Missouri is a small village, an extension of Lineville per se, in Marion Township, Mercer Co., Missouri. The interconnected familes of Duncan, Laughlin and Sullivan from Whitely and Knox Co., Kentucky, previously from the Holston Valley, settled in Lineville, Iowa in the 1840s and 1850s. The plat map of the northern Marion Township, Mercer Co., Missouri, Sections 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, and 33, taken from the Illustrated Historical Atlas of Mercer County, Mo., show landowners of E. C. Duncan, J. A. P. Duncan, J. L. P. Duncan, J. T. Duncan, Susan A. Duncan, Jane Laughlin, J. H. Laughlin, J. T. Laughlin, L. C. Laughlin and J. M. Sullivan. The economic center of this area crosses a township line, a county line and a state line. The disputed state line was "straightened out" by a Supreme Court decision in 1849 affirming the 1816 Sullivan line as the boundary and resurveyed as recently as the 2005 Missouri/Iowa boundary line investigation. Other moving boundaries involve those along rivers or through the center of a river, like the Ohio or Mississippi which do change course and some involve monument markers which can also move under human or natural intervention. The recent flood in northeast Colorado has created new river channels, which may change boundaries if the metes and bounds description of a property or boundary is "to the middle of the river" instead of "60 acres on the north side" of the river.
  • Simple uncomplicated political and physical geography will be easier to search than complex geography; as an example flat midwestern townships and ranges instead of metes and bounds surveyed properties spread throughout valleys and ridges which don't reflect political geographical lines.
  • Small vs. Large geographic area. The borough of Temple, disincorporated in 1999, is completely surrounded by the township of Muhlenberg, Berks Co., Pennsylvania. In addition to being part of the greater Reading area, it is connected with Muhlenberg Twp. and Berks Co., and also could be considered part of the greater Philadelphia area in southeastern Pennsylvania.


  • Large families as simplistic as this sounds, with more children, create more records. In addition the likelihood increases that one sibling may leave an estate with heirs and devisees of nieces and nephews or great nieces and nephews. Also large families offer more naming options, more options for parents' names in obituaries, more birth places listed in census to identify migration years.
  • Solid marriages with a single set of spouses vs. Multiple marriages, serial monogamy, concurrent polygamy, divorces, multiple marriages due to early deaths or multiple divorces or both.
  • A loving, stable long-lived branch of the family. Again simplistically, long-lived families leave more records seven or eight sets of census records instead of two. One divorce means that half of the descendants or ancestors may have little or no knowledge of the estranged family. Divorces two generations in a row means 75% of the family may be estranged and unknown. If that happens concentrate your research on a sibling or child without that instability.
  • Small lightly populated geography vs. large densely populated.


  • Stability vs. Migration. Jacob Breitenstein and Maggie (Gerber) Breitenstein migrated from Bavaria, Germany, Oberotterbach and Rechtenbach specifically to the Okolona area of Jefferson Co., Kentucky, just outside Louisville. Four generations were born in the old farmhouse. In my mother's branch of the family, amongst twenty-five first cousins, four left Kentucky, one moved to Lexington and twenty stayed in Jefferson Co.
  • A family that stayed in one place like Reading for generatons or several decades with NO migration to speak of will be easier to find, than the bunch that moved serially to Philadelphia, Atlantic City and then Maryland.
  • A stable non migratory family in the same ward, the same city, or in the contiguous areas to the city, the same county, the same greater economic territory or even the same general area of the state instead of a famiy that relocated to another area entirely. For instance south eastern Pennsylvania is the greater Philadelphia economic area while the Lehigh Valley is Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton, and their surrounding counties. Other than being in the same state, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia or Denver and Durango have very little in common. Every time the circle widens, more unaffliliated Browns are added to the mix. The bunch that stayed put in Reading should be easier to find instead of the one that moved to Cleveland or Pittsburgh. The exception that makes the rule, your Robert Brown is the only Robert Brown born that year in Pennsylvania living in Cleveland, Ohio with a wife named Nellie or the only Solomon Brown in Pittsburgh with a wife named Minnie.
  • Township to Village to Borough to Town to City moving from the least populated place to the most densely populated place - from the country to the Big Cities of New York or Los Angeles.
  • East to West going from the more densely populated areas to the least densely populated areas for better farming and more freedom.
  • South to North going from hardscrabble farming to industrialized semi skilled work.
  • North to South - after the invention of air conditioning, moving south after retirement to better weather.
  • Back to Nature moving from the city to the country for a simpler life, from Los Angeles to rural Oregon, from New York City to rural Vermont.

Economic condition, middle class

The average middle class family in America leaves tax, probate and land records galore, and are generally listed in city directories, phone books and the census. There are numerous records, newspapers, police blotters, petty theft, that involve people who needed economic assistance and those with legal issues stemming from those problems. The rich and monied upper class had more property and valuable estates, more and varied trusts, private corporate shields for masking assets from public view and maintaing privacy. Collegiate records in a larger proportion revolve around the middle and upper classes who may also have fewer criminal court records. These are broad generalizations and can be proven wrong in a heartbeat by example after example. The Lonas family in the 1900 Tennessee Knox Co. census compared to the transcribed published Bible records in the UDC book published in 1976. Without question Mary Comfort Lonas, daughter of William Baker Lonas and Virginia Clay (Ruley) Lonas, was the mother of Grace Amelia (Lonas) Brown. The published transcription of this Bible record does not include the birth of Grace. I haven't seen a xerox copy of this Bible record to see if Grace were listed in the birth section of the actual Bible or not. In the same way, published genealogies often leave out divorces, illegitimate children and entire marriages that ended in divorce especially if there were no children. 


Religious family members and those with a stable religion across a couple decades and marriages and even more so those in one church for several generations may be amazingly easy to research. Germanic ancestors or descendants with their pastor's attention to detail in church records leave lovely clues. By concentrating on a branch of the family that stayed with one particular church, with only one set of records to review, you could find death dates and the wonder of all wonders, a good solid obituary mentioning the rest of the family and their whereabouts. The exception that makes this rule is the children of William Witman and Leah (Kissinger) Witman of Reading were alternately baptized in the Trinity Lutheran Church and the First Reformed Church now known as the United Church of Christ. The baptismal records for six children alternate based possibly on the sex of the child: the first child, Sarah Witman at Trinity; the second, Jacob at First Reformed; the third, Catharine at Trinity; the fourth, Anna Elisabeth at Trinity; the fifth, Jonathan Christian at the First Reformed Church and the sixth and last known child Samuel was baptized by Charles A. Pauli, church unknown. Religion is handed down differently even in the same family. Louise Noble Fairchild, daughter of Henry Otis Fairchild and Helen Elizabeth (Benjamin) Fairchild was a member of St. James' Episcopal Church, Hammondsport, New York. Her three children who lived to adulthood were raised Episcopalian, her daughter married the same and raised her three daughters in the Episcopal Church, a son married a Roman Catholic and raised his three children in the Catholic religion and her youngest child married a Presbyterian who converted and raised their child Episcopalian. Just to stir the pot, Louise's husband was likely Presbyterian, not yet proven.


The family branch that produced ministers instead of traveling salesmen might be easier to locate especially if they stayed in the same denomination. A family that ran to doctors, lawyers, or merchants instead of laborers, or one that was involved in the railroads in Reading instead of justices of the peace or aldermen may also be easier to find. Teachers, farmers, hatters, engineers, carpenters, anyone with a trade instead of a day laborer may be easier to distinguish from others of the same name, especially in the local city directories and census.


SWITCH DIRECTION - Ancestors vs. Descendants

Search descendants to find ancestors. If you can't find the parents of a child, check death certificates of siblings to see if the parents are listed or read the obituary of of a grandchild to see if grandparents are listed. 

Search ancestors to find descendants. If you are trying to find the children of a couple, go backward to a spinster aunt, bachelor uncle or a childless great aunt or uncle who left an estate which may identify descendants of siblings. Absent a will, the court will have determined the heirs. Find a researcher going in the opposite direction and connect the dots. If you are searching into the past (ancestors), find someone who is bringing a line of descendants up to current day. If you are researching forward (descendants), then find someone who is searching backward to a specific ancestor.



If you have practiced all the avoidance options, played with various surnames and still not serendipitously stumbled upon the correct family, start with the most appropriate census in the area, and diagram the Brown families. Keep track, some will prove impossible to be related, some will be possible and others will be plausible. Narrow it down and then go after them one by one, hypothesis by hypothesis until you have proven or disproven each option. Be sure to keep track of both positive and negative research so you don't have to do a line twice.

The television show "Alias Smith and Jones" from the early 1970s was pretty spot on, with surnames like Smith and Jones they could be anybody. Instead of Hannibal Heyes and Jedidiah 'Kid Curry', they hid in plain sight as Joshua Smith and Thaddeus Jones. Researching a "top ten" most common surname takes more time, effort and money than the much less common names of Henritze, Schmeck, Witman or Babb. Sometimes when you come across a truly common surname, you can just drop it and move on to more fertile pastures, other times it can't be helped. These suggestions may make it easier to follow that Brown line.

Ida Sherwood Bettis is my paternal grand mother. Aunt Clara is my great aunt. I can remember every nooks and crany of that house and yard...

Eric Bettis Eric Bettis 25. July, 2017 |

I would be happy to forward your name, connection, and email if you wish.

Barbara K. Henritze Barbara K. Henritze 06. November, 2016 |

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