If you've ever looked at records that were created several decades ago,
particularly before the turn of the century, you know that they aren't
always easy to understand. Handwriting styles were different and people
weren't always particular about spelling and punctuation. You'll even
find that the boundaries of countries, states, and counties changed, so
that your ancestors' records could be in different offices even though
the family never moved! In the first part of our series, we'll look at
issues you might find with dates, and also how the meanings of relationship
words may have changed.
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
|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
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.
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.
Some of today's most familiar words had different meanings previously,
and the change in meaning quite often occurred in words referring to social
relationships. For example, the word "cousin" often meant niece
or nephew; and the title "Mrs." could show high social status,
not necessarily marital status. There are a few other relationship terms
that you should look out for:
The terms "niece" and "nephew" spring from Latin
words which meant "granddaughter" and "grandson,"
so you may find them used in that context.
When we use the words "junior" and "senior,"
we normally think of a father and son relationship. However, in the
past, these words were used much more liberally and could refer to
an uncle and nephew, or even to two people with the same name who
The words "brother" and "sister" also were used
in different ways. Members of the same church often referred to each
other as brothers and sisters, and a married couple would refer to
their brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law just as brothers and sisters.
If you see "good brother" or "good sister," the
creator of the document wasn't playing favorites. It's just another
way of saying "brother-in-law" or "sister-in-law."
You might also come across "good son" or "good daughter"
which are "son-in-law" and "daughter-in-law."
The term "in-law" can also cause problems. In the past,
"in-law" relationships could be either step relationships
or the regular in-law relationship that we think
An "infant" didn't necessarily refer to a babe-in-arms.
In many cases, this meant that the person in question was a person
under legal age.
Misunderstanding and misinterpreting these terms can really twist the
branches of your family tree, so when you're reading older records it
is important to be cautious. When it is possible, verify information with
other records. This is the best way to make sure that you have the correct
information. In addition, look at the rest of the language in the document.
The more arcane terms and spellings you find, the more careful you should
There's More to Come!
Stay tuned for future installments of
this series, when we'll cover handwriting, spelling, and boundary changes.
The more you know, the easier it will be to climb your family tree.