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* Dangerous dates

Calendar Switch and Double Dates

Beginning in 45 B.C., many parts of the world used the Julian calendar to mark the passage of time. By the Julian calendar, March 25 was the first day of the year and each year was 365 days and 6 hours long. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII determined that the Julian calendar was incorrect: each day was just a little bit too long and the human calendar wasn't keeping up with nature's calendar. To solve the problem, Pope Gregory XIII created what is known as the Gregorian calendar. This new calendar changed the first day of the year to January 1 and also jumped ahead by 10 days to make up for the lost time.

The practice of double dating resulted from the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. Not all countries and people accepted this new calendar at the same time. England and the American colonies didn't officially accept it until 1752. Before that date, the government observed March 25 as the first of the year, but most of the population observed January 1 as the first of the year. For this reason, many people wrote dates falling between January 1 and March 25 with both years, as in the following examples.

Julian or Old Style

Gregorian or New Style Double Date
December 25, 1718 December 25, 1718 December 25, 1718

January 1, 1718

January 1, 1719 January 1, 1718/19
February 2, 1718 February 2, 1719

February 2, 1718/19

March 20, 1718 March 20, 1719 March 20, 1718/19
March 25, 1719 March 25, 1719 March 25, 1719

By the time England and the colonies adopted the new calendar, the discrepancy between the calendars was eleven days. To resolve the discrepancy, the government ordered that September 2, 1752 be followed by September 14, 1752. Some people also added 11 days to their birth dates (a fact which is not noted on their birth certificates). You should also watch for dates that are recorded as double dates even after all calendars had officially switched. People sometimes accidentally wrote double dates.

Marriage Banns and Intentions

Church records often list the date on which a couple makes the announcement that they intend to marry. These are called marriage banns. In addition, you can find marriage intentions, which were non-religious public announcements of the couple's intention to marry. Don't misinterpret the dates of marriage banns and marriage intentions as the actual wedding date.

Death and Burial Dates

Church and cemetery records often contain the date of the funeral in addition to the date of death. Don't confuse the burial date with the date of death.

Date Formats

When you look at records from other countries, you should be aware of the date format that they use. In the United States, we normally write dates with the month first, the day second, and the year last. For example, we write October 15, 1970 as 10/15/70. However, many other countries reverse the order of the month and day. They write October 15, 1970 as 15/10/70. Since there are only twelve months in the year it is often easy to tell which date format was used because one of the first two numbers is greater than twelve, as in the example above.

If neither of the first two dates is greater than twelve, it is harder to tell which format was used. For example, April 3, 1970 can be written as both 4/3/70 and 3/4/70. If you run into this problem, take a few moments to look at other dates in that group of records. You should eventually run across a date where one of the first two numbers is greater than twelve, and then you'll know the answer to your question.

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