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Overheard in GenForum: Birth Year Problems
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

July 26, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I would appreciate any suggestions as to why one would be less than truthful about his age - not for a short period but for over 50 years. Three federal census, one Iowa census, a marriage record and a death certificate suggest the gentlemen in question may have been born anytime between 1807 and 1825. This does not seem to be a case of illiteracy as during the very same period, using the same records, his wife's birth year is consistent within a year or two. If any of you have had this problem or have any ideas or suggestions as to what might be going on, I would appreciate hearing from you. -- John

A: The age old question - why did my ancestor lie about his age? It is not unusual to find records where our ancestor's age varies. Of course, such records are often our only clue to the birth of an ancestor. When the records don't agree we have a new question to deal with - which record is the most accurate?

The key to evaluating such research is to look at each separate record and evaluate it on a number of different levels. Each record type has strengths and weaknesses.

Maybe your ancestor didn't really lie about his age.

Evaluation the Records

Not all records or resources are considered equal when it comes to genealogical research. There are documents that are considered primary sources and others that are considered secondary sources. Sometimes a primary document is considered primary for some information and secondary for other information.

When working with any record there are some questions you need to ask yourself during that evaluation phase.

  • What is the purpose in compiling the record?
  • Who was the informant of the information?
  • How current was the record to the date or piece of information?

As you answer each of these questions you will begin to have a better picture as to the accuracy of the record in question. Let's apply those questions to the records you mentioned in your message.

Census Records

Census records have changed dramatically over the years since they were first begun in 1790 for the United States. Taken every ten years, the first six enumerations recorded the name of the head of the household. All others were tallied by gender and age range. The best you can get from these is usually a 5-10 year age range. In 1850 the names of everyone living in the household were listed, along with pertinent information on each individual. Now to apply the questions to the census.

What is the purpose in compiling the census? The census is designed to get a tabulation of the population in the United States. Through this information, the government makes appropriate changes in the House of Representatives, and other areas. Over the years additional information has been tabulated, including information on immigrants, education, employment, and family structure.

Who was the informant for the information found on the census page? Actually we don't know. We often believe that it is our relative, or his or her spouse. However, in some instances it could be a child or teenager living in the house. It could be a hired hand. If no one was home when the enumerator visited the house, then the informant could be the neighbor next door. This practice was still going on when the 1990 census was taken. An enumerator visited my house asking what I knew about the neighbors on the south side. I did not know enough to be of real help with the information sought.

How current was the record to the date of the event in question? In this case, it depends on which census records you found your ancestor listed in. It is safe to say that in regard to the years from the date of birth to the recording of the age, there is room for error. Dates of birth were not as important as they have become in modern times.

Vital Records

Marriage and death records are two of the three vital records we turn to in our research. Often these records exist for more years than birth records. This is especially true of marriage records. However, as we look at each record and apply those questions, it is possible to see where errors may creep in again.

A look at the marriage record first. The purpose of this record is to provide proof of the marriage of the two individuals. At the death of the spouse, this record may be necessary for proving inheritance. Therefore the focus of the record is on the information pertaining to the marriage. The informant for the marriage record will usually be your ancestor. Of course, when it comes to age or date and place of birth, he or she is relying solely on what they were told when growing up. Usually this information is likely to be more accurate than other records because it is our ancestor supplying the information. Also, a marriage usually takes place some eighteen to thirty years after birth. This sometimes makes it a closer record than other resources in terms of years from the date of birth.

The death record is open to possible errors as well. First, the purpose of the record is to record information about the death. In some instances the cause of death is more important than anything else on the record. Of course, the informant cannot be the individual in question since he or she is deceased. While it is often a spouse or child, they may not know as much as we would expect. For instance, when my grandfather passed away, I was the one who knew the information for the death certificate. My mother, her daughter, did not know where he was born. Having been the genealogist though, I had talked to him and actually had a copy of his birth certificate. Finally, the death usually takes place many, many years after the birth, making it the record that is furthest from the birth date than any of the others looked at here.

In Conclusion

It is likely that in all of the records amassed on your ancestor, that he supplied the information on only one or two of them. Other individuals supplied the details for the other records, thus explaining the wide range in possible year of birth.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns


About the Author
Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in New England research and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for thirteen years. She was the Web Site Sysop for the Ultimate Family Tree web site. She was the Data Manager of the Genealogy RoundTable on Genie(r) for seven years and the forum manager for the Genealogy Forum on MSN(r). She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy. She is a contributing editor for Heritage Quest Magazine. She author's regular articles for the National Genealogical Society's Newsmagazine on copyright. She also writes a 5-day a week e-mail newsletter, Family Tree Finders - for SodaMail. She may be contacted at rhondam@genealogy.com.

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