Expecting dates in records to be exact: common genealogy mistakes


I found a fun video from Family History Fanatics
listing seven common genealogy mistakes. I’ve made every single one of these mistakes
and have some guidelines for avoiding them. In this video, I’ll cover the second error,
expecting dates to be exact. They’re not, though, and I see four different
types here: Calculations based on age made by modern transcribers. These can be a year off in either direction. People not knowing a date, or just making
a best guess. People flat out lied about their age. Contemporary… imprecision or flexibility,
for lack of a better word about years and dates. Regardless of the scenario, I’ve got one piece of advice. If you see multiple death years or birth years or whatever years for someone you’re researching record separate facts. If you’ve got four different birth years, list each one of those birth years, and point to which sources support that year. When you can see all those dates and
which ones have supporting evidence it can really help you narrow in on the actual year the event occurred. For the first, lots of genealogy websites
try to make your life easier by taking numerical ages on records on subtracting the year of
the record to give you a birth year. I definitely find it helpful—I’m much
better at math with variables and ranges than I am with doing subtraction in my head. This matters because the calculations can
be a year or so off. For example, the 1860 census was taken over
a five-month period in the latter half of the year, so a 27-year-old with a birthday
in December would have been born in 1832, while a twenty-seven-year-old born in May
would have been born in 1833. One of my core principles in genealogy research
is to read everything, and that means examining the original, which will tell you clearly
if a year was actually recorded, or if it was just calculated by the transcriber. For the second, look at my second great-grandmother,
Mary Shiel Gallagher. I know the story of her life from family oral
history. She was born near Swinford, Ireland, spent
some time in Worcestershire, England, and then immigrated to Philadelphia. Without that story, though, I’d have real
trouble tracing her using birth years, with different records suggesting she was born
1844, 1849, 1851 and 1857. I don’t think Mary even knew what year she
was born. For the third, people probably started lying
about their age the moment we started recording birth years. The most common scenario I’ve seen
is when a couple wants to get married but the woman is older than the man. That’s often consider culturally unacceptable. But if she says she’s the same age and there’s no other evidence to refute her assertion… Anyway, I’ve got a whole video dedicated
to this one and how you handle it. The last one is the probably the most difficult
to understand for us today: I mean, I know the birth years for everyone in my family
(and my wife’s family). But… precise dates are part of our culture. Go back 150 years, did it really matter if
you told a census taker the right age for everyone in your family? Not really. The only times your age really mattered were
for minors trying to marry, inherit or enter into
a contract.

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