What a tremendous response to last week’s tip! Thank you for your comments!
This week a re-look at a problem we all face while doing research: how old was our ancestor really? And, just for the fun of it, where were they really born?
Since time travel machines have not yet been invented, there is no way for us to zoom back into the past and see the excitement upon the birth of our great-great (plus) grandmother. We cannot stand by their grave and weep at their passing. We cannot shop with great joy for a wedding gift for their upcoming nuptials. No – we are stuck in the present, trying to prove dates of birth and death, wedding dates and locations where all these happened.
But, do not we often run into a snag while looking from afar? Our binoculars seem to be out of focus when we see various dates and locations! We can have swirling before us the following:
1 – Grandmother’s brother distinctly remembers that his sister was born on a cold winter’s day in Virginia – he remembers it well because it was the first day of a Christmas break from school, 1895.
2 – The newspaper, if it still exists, has a tiny line or two in the community news that reads: “It’s a girl at the Smith’s house who welcomed the year 1896 on its first day.”
3 – Or, “it’s with great sadness that we announce the death of one of our town’s most beloved women. Mrs. Josiah Smith passed to the great beyond on the 4th inst. 1930 and her loss is grieved universally. She was born in 1890 in Virginia and came to Kentucky when yet a young child.” (not a real person!)
4 – Or – funeral home records which show Anna Smith born 20 December 1893, died 2 July 1930; born North Carolina.
5 – Or the census record for 1900: Anna Smith, age 3. Census record for 1910: A. Smith, age 10.
6 – or the tombstone: Anna Smith – born December 21, 1894 – died 3 July 1930, beloved wife of Josiah Smith whom she married in 1920.
7 – The family Bible. It’s right there in black and white – Anna Smith born December 18, 1894, died July 1, 1930.
Confused yet? But yes, this happens! Let’s look at the above again:
1 – Brother’s memory. Well, Grandmother’s brother might have gotten it wrong. His memory is getting a little fuzzy with age now.
2 – The newspaper. Known for errors in typesetting and the accuracy of these community reports can be debatable. The “correspondents” gathered up news (and gossip) from any source in order to get it to the paper in time. Could he/she have been given the wrong information?
3 – The newspaper again. See #2 above on unintentional errors. Who gave them the year of birth or the date of her death? Was it a grieving spouse? An elderly relative? Someone that was at the funeral?
4 – The funeral home. We hope these to be the most accurate, but they aren’t always! I remember when my father died, me being a genealogist and all, froze up on Dad’s birth date. I could remember the town, but what year? I knew it as well as my own date of birth, but in that moment, in grief, I froze. Or, when my Mother died and I gave the funeral home the name of her grandfather instead of the name of her father. The funeral home people don’t know – they assume you do!
5 – The census records. Don’t get me started on those! Census takers were to ask an adult, not a child. Preferably that adult was not in the throes of dementia. They were not to ask neighbors … but did they always follow the rules when they had ridden their horse all day in the blistering heat and wanted to get home? Or, they couldn’t ask a child. And, ah yes, the technique I call the “fudging on my age so no one will know I’m as old as I am routine.” It happened, believe me. If one follows the progression of ages for the women in comparison to their husbands from census to census, it’s amazing that he often aged 10 years; she aged 5 or so. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
6 – The tombstone. Surely that is right, isn’t it? Normally, yes. But: was the tombstone erected right after the death of Anna Smith? Or did the family not have money for a nice monument then and the stone was erected later? Did the carver read the handwriting correctly? Did the person giving the carver have the right dates?
7 – The family Bible. This was long considered THE source to prove births and deaths, along with relationships. Revolutionary War pension applicants used Bible records to prove their age and marriage. If you have an old family Bible; I have one dated 1768, look at those entries carefully. Was that THE original information entered by someone who saw the event or the individual themselves? Is the writing exactly the same from entry to entry? Is some written in ballpoint ink noting a birth in the early 1800’s? Hmmm, strange. Could this Bible have not been the original and copied from one Bible to another as generations passed? Could not the later entries be added by someone who had transferred the information and gotten something wrong?
Conclusion: Genealogy is not a scientific positive proposition. Unless we were there, we can’t be positive! Well, what do we do when we publish our family tree or keep our notebooks full of our family’s history? Do we toss it all out and take up a hobby of macramé or chess instead?
No, we plow on. If all the dates agree, we’re pretty well home scot free and can be pretty sure the dates are correct. But, if there are differences, NOTE THEM! Enter a date and then a note indicating where that date came from. If there’s another date, do the same, noting the source. That way others will understand that you’re not positive which date or dates are correct and they won’t build their family tree (snitched from yours of course!) on an error.
Well, I need to get out of here and get in my time machine; I’ve got to figure out how our family got to America. Did they swim the Atlantic? Were they beamed down by Scottie in the Enterprise? Did they go under an alias? I’ll be back next week!