Junior, senior, and the perils of assuming they’re kin

Junior-senior confusion. Image of dog and cat with caption "Tom Sr. and Tom Jr. of Yourtown, USA"It’s clearly a junior-senior kinship, right? Only two Tom Whatsits in the whole county–Tom Whatsit Sr. and Tom Whatsit Jr. You have moved up another branch in the family tree, right? Not so fast. . . .


Tom Whatsit Sr. might have no son at all and Tom Jr.’s father could very well be Bernard or Bob or Bartram Whatsit, possibly living in another county. But surely not, you say.

It’s so. This junior-senior ambiguity was my biggest “you’re kidding me” moment at last year’s Institute of Genealogical and Historical Research. Oh, I learned a lot there, but this was the thing that had me rethinking every other branch in my tree. This little piece of intelligence sent me home wondering why I had waited so long for formal training.

I might have assumed this was a beginner’s mistake and, in embarrassment, failed to bring it up with you GEGs. But this year, on Day One of IGHR, I mentioned this tidbit to a fellow classmate in the intermediate class. It was the first she had heard of it, too. I knew then, the Jr.-Sr. problem needs lots of exposure to beginners, intermediates, and all of the GEG-bound.

Junior can mean several things

Admittedly (and to ease your mind a tad), most of the time the suffix Jr. designates the son of a man with the same name. This is not scientific or statistical, but I would guess this is true more than 90% of the time. When it’s not true, though, it tells you something.

George Jr Son of William--the junior-senior ambiguityTake for example the William L. Bailey family of Chester County, Pennsylvania. They appear in the 1880 census, and William’s son is labeled George Jr. What could it mean?

It’s possible George is William’s step-son, but in most cases, the census taker would have labeled him that way. More likely, George’s parents named him after another family member. This can trigger a search for an uncle, or might be a clue as to William’s father’s name. I have seen as many as three sons in one family with a Jr. suffix.

George Jr. might have earned his suffix for another reason, though. Some small towns kept themselves straight on two unrelated men of the same name by giving the elder a Sr. suffix and the younger a Jr. These junior-senior situations present the greatest peril for shoddy genealogy. Attaching the Jr. to the Sr.’s family — something that just looks so right — can send descendants up the wrong tree.

And then there’s Bertha Jr.

The junior-senior designation for women. Bertha A and Bertha A Jr in CensusEarlier record-keepers also encountered women with a junior designation. Though less common, this reference to six-year-old Bertha Jr. would have raised no eyebrows in 1880s Massachusetts. While unconventional to modern usage for the female gender, this usage is conventional in tying parent and child.

Junior-Senior Mix-up?

Do you think you might have made this junior-senior error somewhere along the line? What can you do?

It should go without saying, I suppose, but I’ll say it. Every time you add a parent to a child’s record, as you climb the tree, prove the relationship. I have created a fact type called “Parental Relationship” in my desktop software, which I add to the child’s events. I attach any evidence that I encounter tying the two together as family (or disputing it).

While I recommend you do this to every person in your tree, that might take a long time. At the very least, go back to the places in your tree where sons have their father’s names. Prove those, and sleep better.


Fellow GEGs, this post is part of a growing collection tagged the “Wish I’d Known Series.” If you’ve had moments like my “you’re kidding me” epiphany at IGHR 2015—when you encountered a piece of knowledge that could have saved you time, money, and mistakes—please email me or comment below. Perhaps your experience will save another from regrets.  Oh, we will always encounter Wish-I’d-Known moments, but better sooner than later, no?

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2 thoughts on “Junior, senior, and the perils of assuming they’re kin”

  1. Great Article.
    Yes I have one I should e-mail to you. It took me forever to find, but when I did I could see the census taker just heard the name wrong. I didn’t find it directly by going to the census. It was only when I found other clues, I was able to see exactly the census taker had made this mistake.

    Regards, Grant

    1. Thanks so much, Grant. I knew my great-grandmother had a daughter named Ann, so I put her in the tree, though she was not appearing in the census records where she should be. I also was finding a child in the census, “Offie J.,” who had never been mentioned by my family. Only when I finally found a marriage record for “Ophelia Ann” did I realize they were the same person. The census taker just got the wrong middle initial and left me in the dark. (In that civil servant’s defense, though, I hate to think how many problems absent-minded me would have created for future genealogists, had I been a census taker in the hot Georgia sun a hundred years ago.)

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