“Grandpa Joe Smith was born on —.” Are you sure?

No, this is not the lead-in for a discussion of some Birther Conspiracy! But it is intended to get us thinking about some of the events we “assume” are proven as fact. Consider it my contribution to a discussion of best practices in genealogical research.

I constantly receive genealogical data from (and share it with) other researchers. In doing so, each party must assume both the goodwill and reasonable knowledge and skills of the other. As we consider the topic of this blog entry, let’s keep our appreciation for the generous spirit of our fellow family historians paramount…

Now, to the issue at hand — documentation of birth events.

Assume that Grandpa Joe is the subject of our research today. Often we will begin with only some very basic hints at the lifespan of Grandpa. We may have information that he had a child (or children) born between 1910-1925. That suggests that Joe was likely born sometime before 1890-1895. Good, now we can narrow down our search of records somewhat.

Probably if we have a general idea of where Grandpa lived, and the name of his spouse, parents, or children, our first research stop will be the census indexes for 1900, 1910, and 1920. We find a few potential “hits” — the 1900 census shows a birth month and year of Aug 1887; the 1910 census age listing would suggest a birth year of 1885; and the 1920 census suggests a birth year of 1891. Great! Now at least we can narrow the birth range down to “between Aug 1887 and 1891”. And, if we are more brazen, we may just convince ourselves that a report that includes a month and year (the 1900 census) has to be more accurate than one that forces us to infer a birth year based upon a reported age. (Remember also, if he reported his age as 29 in the 1920 census, it does not mean he was born in 1891; if the census response was made on 20 April 1920, he could have been born anytime between 21 April 1890 and 20 April 1891!)

Nonetheless, with the natural desire to move from the general to the more-specific, we can at least say (relying on our example of the 1920 census response) that Grandpa Joe was born “between 21 Apr 1890 and 20 Apr 1891”. That’s progress. Furthermore, we may have learned from the census records that Grandpa Joe was born in Virginia, not Kentucky as we had assumed from family lore.

Next stop — birth records for Virginia. Oops, we learn that there are several Joe Smiths born within that date range in Virginia. Are we certain we can pin down the right one? Were contemporaneous recordings of births required or common practice at that time? Even if we are dead certain we have found a birth index/certificate entry for Grandpa Joe, containing an exact date of 15 Jun 1890  (e.g., we knew the names of his parents before finding the record, and the birth location seems correct or at least plausible), can there be any possibility of error?  Hint:  The answer is sometimes “Yes”!

More digging — Eureka! FamilySearch indexes of US Draft Registrations for World War I (and/or WW II) turn up a registration form listing his date and place of birth. But wait — it shows he was born on 20 Jun 1891 in Kingsport, TN. Now what are we to believe?  The birth index or the draft registration?

He spent most of his adult years in Kentucky, so we turn next to Kentucky death records. We discover that he died in Pike County, KY on 20 Oct 1951. If we are lucky, we may get a death certificate that indicates a specific date of birth; not all death certificates do contain that detail — and it relies on the knowledge of the informant for accuracy.

Next stop — a local cemetery, or at least the Find-a-Grave website. Whoopee! There is a tombstone that records Grandpa Joe’s date of birth as 22 Jun 1890, and his date of death as 21 Oct 1951. Oh, no — both the date of birth and date of death disagree with what we already had on hand.

What are we to do?  Give up, screaming and waving our hands? Throw a few family group sheets at the nearest wall? What I have described here, after all, is very real. It is a common experience for any of us who attempt diligently to document all the significant events of a person’s life? Does it mean we cannot trust anything?

Here are some of the points I am trying to make…

  • CENSUS RECORDS are only as good as the actual knowledge, education, literacy, and recall of the informant (and the enumerator). In years past, many households were documented without even consulting the householder. If a resident was not home, or was uncooperative — or if the enumerator was lazy — the household information may have been supplied by a neighbor or other third party. As the saying goes, “–IT HAPPENS!”  If census recordations of names can be badly misspelled, or even totally erroneous, far greater chance for error can occur with respect to ages and birth dates.
  • GOVERNMENTAL RECORDS OF BIRTHS did not become formalized, or even required in some states, until after the turn of the twentieth century. In Kentucky, for example, a statewide vital-records law was not enacted until 1911. Even then, it was not uncommon for births “at home” and in rural areas to go unrecorded for months, or until later events such as school registration or Social Security enrollment necessitated some documentation of birth. Hint:  Beware of certificates that are marked “DELAYED”.
  • DRAFT RECORDS surely had a greater force of law behind them, since Grandpa Joe could be jailed for providing false information. But when faced with conscription for a war that could take his life, he could lie. Or, more generously, he could have relied only on the “best guess” of his illiterate parents. If the form required a specific day, month, and year, and no one had been able, or accustomed, to write it down at the time he was born, “something” still had to be placed on the registration. And thus an arbitrary date “became history”.
  • SOCIAL SECURITY birth and death index information contains the same weaknesses as draft records. While most erroneous data was unintentional, there was also an incentive, for certain individuals at the implementation of the Social Security program in the 1930s, to overstate their ages at registration in order to attain a pension “early”. Social Security Death Index death dates also were not accurately recorded for years; generally death dates occurring before 1980 have generally been “rounded” to the fifteenth day of the month of the person’s death.
  • TOMBSTONE INSCRIPTIONS are based entirely on information provided — usually by a family member — days, months, or years after the decedent passed. Again, memories can become faulty. Or an embarrassed child who is paying to erect the tombstone may want to obscure the fact that Grandpa was born three months after (or before) his parents married.
  • FAMILY BIBLE entries are generally considered primary sources for birth data. Yet again, the person entering family birth and death records into a family Bible can only rely on his own recall, or that of others in the family, to record data. I have seen family bibles with frontispiece printing dates that are 1910 or 1920, in which the birth recordations of people born fifteen or twenty years before are treated as if they were contemporaneous with the event, and accurate to the degree of the number of angels that can fit on the head of a pin. It ain’t necessarily so!
  • CONSENSUS BIRTH DATES appearing in several public/governmental documents can still be wrong. In my own research experience, it has not been at all uncommon to find marriage and death certificates, draft records, social security index entries, and tombstone inscriptions that all point to a birth date such as “7 Jan 1881”. Then, in further census research (or city directories or other published documents, etc.) I find that Grandpa Joe was recorded as a one-year-old member of his parents’ household in the 1880 census. This is not due to some magical prescience on the part of the enumerator — Joe was a very real person. It can only be that as society required Joe, at some point in his lifetime, to present a very definite date for his birth, he or his parents came up with their best answer — and then stuck with it!

So… Give up the whole enterprise, right?

My own practice  as I manage — and attempt to verify — a huge database of individual records is now evolving. I attempt to uncover the most accurate date of birth, based upon extant records. If all I have to rely upon is census age information, I now try always to record the calculated birth year as “abt 1880” or “1879-1880” to indicate to readers that all we can determine is a narrow span of time. If I have uncovered or received a specific month, day, and year, I notate that event with one or more citations of source so that readers can make their own judgments as to the reliability of the information.

Some genealogical software and website tools permit the entry of multiple dates of birth death, and/or marriage — others do not. My personal software of choice is RootsMagic, which contains fact types for “Birth Date” and for “Alternate Birth Date”. For years, I have been using that flexibility to document the potentially contradictory sources of information. That has usually led me to enter a “consensus”, “specific”, or “generally-accepted” date as the main Birth event, and then to present the “outlier” date (such as the census recordation that occurred before assumed birth date) as an Alternative Birth Date. However, that longtime practice has not yielded to readers and users of my database an adequate explanation of the fuzziness and ambiguity underlying the issues.

I began seriously to reconsider my own practices in this regard following an exchange of comments among users of the RootsMagic software in the RM Facebook users group. It helped me focus on a building source of documentary frustration that begged a rational solution.

As I go forward, I am shifting to a practice whereby I shall only use a single Birth event. In the case of the “census before birth” contradiction, for example, I shall remove the specific month-day-year entry (“7 Jan 1881” as described in Scenario #7 above), and replace the Birth date with “abt 1879” or “bet 1878 and 1879” (encompassing a birth range that enabled him to be one year old when a census entry was made sometime during 1880). Then, within a note attached to the Birth event/fact, I shall describe more fully the existence of records that report the 1881 date, and the logic that would necessitate the questioning of public records. For example: “While public records, including the Social Security Death Index and tombstone inscriptions [as cited herein] suggest agreement on a birth date of 7 Jan 1881, this specific date appears to be impossible given that Joe was listed as a one-year-old son in the household of John and Mary Smith in the U.S. Census of 1880 [also cited herein].”

It will take some time for me to clean up data and establish consistency in my database and on the Highland HomePage database, but as I review existing records and create new ones, this is what I intend to do. And I recommend it to others.

The “best practice” I describe here is certainly inelegant. But nobody who has engaged in serious genealogical research for any length of time can call our efforts “elegant”. History — and the recording of it — is often messy. It is never perfect — or finished.

And we can never assume that, as good as our individual skills and efforts are, our contributions to that process are finished. We are only marking guideposts along the way.

One thought on ““Grandpa Joe Smith was born on —.” Are you sure?”

  1. Well written article. Definitely worth considering for best practices to follow. Thank you for your insight. Please post an update if you make further changes to the system you’re using. I’m wondering how RM will print those ‘abt’ dates on charts and such, do you know? Does it just ignore them?

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