October 3, 2002
Oh to be a fly on the wall of the homes of my ancestors; a fly who could write of course, so I could be recording the dates of the events of all my ancestors. Of course with my luck, I would be the one fly that they managed to squash with their swatters and I would not even get a chance to put together the genealogy.
Why Can't They Agree?
Why is it that our ancestors can't agree on when certain events took place? Why is it that when we are researching in the various records we find that one record says Aunt Rhody was born in 1866 and another that says she was actually born in 1862? Why does the tombstone say one thing and her marriage application say another?
Picture for a moment a mild fender bender. Many of us have been witness to such an event. When questioned by the police officer we share with them our take on what happened during the accident. Often our description of the events differs from that of one of the other witnesses. In some cases the other witness may have seen more of the accident than we did. In another case their vantage point may have been different or we may have noticed that indeed the light had changed where as the other witness didn't. I guess if everything was black and white we wouldn't need courts or juries to weigh the testimony of different people try to come up with what really happened.
While our ancestor's birth is not quite the same as a car accident, the ancestor in question is too young to remember his or her own birth. Instead he relies on the information told to him by those who were there, usually the parents. Sometimes a real need for the exact date of birth was not needed until quite some time after the event took place.
For so long it was not necessary to prove your date of birth. No one really cared how old you were. You didn't have to prove you were eligible for social security or retirement benefits. That all changed in the 20th century and we saw a rash of delayed birth certificates filed, with affidavits of those who could remember an individual's date of birth.
I suspect that some of those delayed birth certificates are off by a few days or perhaps didn't have the right month or, in some cases, even the right year. Today some individuals care so much about how old they seem to be getting that they shave a few years off. Of course, if a person was born in this century the odds are pretty good that there is a record of their birth. Such an option wasn't always the case and as researchers we are often required to rely on the age of the individual as it is found in various records.
Who Supplied the Information
Because vital records and the timely recording of births and deaths is a relatively new phenomenon, we are often forced to estimate the date of birth or death based on other records including the age at marriage, the age as listed in the census, the age at death, or the date of probating of the estate. the key is estimating. Whenever we estimate we are going to be off by some degree. Add to that the fact that some information was gleaned from someone who perhaps really didn't know and you find that the potential for discrepancy is rampant.
The census is a prime example of relying on information from a person who really didn't know the correct information. So often I have sat in a library or archive and heard the researcher next to me wonder aloud why their ancestor lied to the census taker. Usually it wasn't our ancestor lying to the census taker but the individual answering the census taker's questions simply not knowing the right answer.
Death records are another source in which the individual questioned may not actually know the answers, or may think the know the answers when in fact they do not. My grandfather's death comes to mind. When he died my mother was supposed to supply the information for the death certificate. The problem? While she knew his birth date she did not know where he was born. She thought she knew his parents' names, but had no idea where they were born. Instead I supplied the information for the death certificate, aided by the research I had done over the years. What happens, though, if the person supplying the information isn't the child of the deceased?
Sometimes I have seen informants who are totally unrelated to the individual in question. It could be that the person died in a hospital or home for the aged. In such cases, sometimes an employee of the institution answers the questions. What are the odds that he or she knows the right answers? They often base their information for the death certificate on the information supplied in the files for the inpatient. With modern technology this is often no longer a problem, but when the death took place in the 1800s or the early 1900s the potential for error is much greater. Perhaps they knew that Mr. Smith was approximately 80 years old. His date of birth would probably simply list a year and be based on this approximation. In fact, Mr. Smith may have been older or younger. Such a situation results in the creation of a record with conflicting information.
Sometimes it is an error in interpretation of the records that results in the publishing of an incorrect date of the event. If you look at marriage records, for instance, there are often a number of different dates. Usually you will find that there is the date the license was taken out, the date of the marriage, and the date the license was returned or filed. That's three dates. In some instances the dates may only be a day or two off. In researching one particular lineage I discovered that the date published as the marriage date was in fact the date that the license was applied for, and the date of the marriage was in fact three days later. Not a big difference, but a discrepancy nonetheless.
Census records are another area where it is easy for us to misinterpret when an event such as a birth took place. If you look at the name column for the 1850 to 1930 censuses you will find that they have a specific date. This was the date for which all the questions were to be based on. For instance the list of those living in the household was to be based on 1 June or 15 April. If a child was born after this date, even though the enumerator didn't get to the household until October, the child was not supposed to be listed. This wasn't always the case, though. In addition to this quandary of which date the enumerator was basing his answers on you have to wonder whether he did, in fact, ask the household to list just those living in the household on April 15th.
Another common situation is dealing with dates in published family histories that have been misinterpreted from census records. For instance, a person is listed as 20 years old in the 1920 census. It is natural to assume that the person was born in 1900 and leave it at that, and this is what you will sometimes find in published genealogies. However, if you look at the date of the 1920 census, as it is listed in the name column, you will discover that the question pertains to the date of 1 January. So unless, the individual in question was born on 1 January, it is likely that he or she was actually born in 1899 and has not yet had a birthday in 1920.
When it comes to estimating deaths, many people use the date of the will or the date a will was probated. While it is acceptable to say the person died before the date of the probating of the estate, not everyone thinks to do this. As a result it is possible to find a misinterpretation of the records. If we are lucky, somewhere in the estate files, we will discover the exact date of death, but this doesn't always happen. So we are left with conflicting information.
Since we were not a fly on the wall and we cannot travel back in time to see just what happened when, we must rely on the records as we find them. We must evaluate them and see which is most reliable and then decide how we will record the information in our database and, eventually, in a family history. Discrepancies will continue because we were not there, and the best we can do is to evaluate what we find and perhaps include some sort of explanation of why we have listed a date as we have.The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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