Genealogy Problem Solving: Conflicting Birthdates

Show Notes: Learn how to resolve conflicting evidence in your ancestors’ birth dates.

resolving conflicting birthdate genealogical evidence

Lisa’s special guest is genealogist Lindsey Harner.

 

In this Article and Video:

Reasons for Birthdate Discrepancies in Genealogy

5 Questions You Should Ask About Conflicting Birthdates

Birth Record Substitutes

Case Study Strategies for Solving Conflicting Birthdates

Have you ever been frustrated by finding conflicting birth dates for your ancestor? The article called Birthday Wishes appears in the July/August 2020 issue of Family Tree Magazine tackles this challenge. The article’s author, professional genealogist Lindsay Harner is here to share five questions that you should ask yourself when you are comparing birth dates across a variety of genealogical records. These questions will help you get a little closer to the truth.

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Reasons for Birthdate Discrepancies in Genealogy

Lisa: What are some of the possible reasons that we might come across birthdate discrepancies when we’re looking at a variety of different genealogical records?

(01:08) Lindsay: We’re talking about vital records, birth, marriage and death records.  I think birth records tend to be a little different sometimes, because marriage records would be recorded by churches and in civil records for many, many years and often reported in the local newspaper. Death dates are often carved on headstones. But with the birthdate, nobody can remember their own birth date, right? So, in the days before documentation, a lot of times people had to rely on what they were told by maybe a parent or a relative in terms of what their actual birth date was.

(01:58) Lisa: That’s a good point, it poses a very unique challenge.

5 Questions You Should Ask about Conflicting Birthdates

Let’s jump into your five questions, because I think they will help us find the truth. What is the first thing that we should ask ourselves when we’re seeing a discrepancy?

Question #1: When was the birthdate record created?

(02:16) Lindsay: The first question you should ask yourself is, when was the record created?

Records tend to be more reliable the closer they were created to the actual event. People tend to remember events better when they’re fresher in their minds. We tend to remember things better that happened last week than, say, 10 years ago.

Question #2: Who was the source of the birthdate?

(02:52) The next thing you’re going to want to ask is who was the source of the birth information? Was it someone who could have been present at the birth?  They’re going to be the most reliable sources of information. People such as a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, maybe an older sibling who would have been old enough to remember, an attending physician or midwife if you’re lucky enough to find a record from one of them. People like that would be much more reliable than, say, the person’s child who of course, couldn’t have been present at the birth.

Lisa: A death certificate is a good example. It will often tell the birthdate of the person who died. However, you then look at the informant, and you realize that guy certainly wasn’t there when the person was born and certainly heard about it second or third hand. So that’s what you’re talking about, deciding how much weight to give it?

Lindsey: That’s right. Yes.

Question #3: Can the birthdate be corroborated?

(04:00) The next question you’re going to want to ask is whether or not the birth date can be corroborated with other records. For example, if you have three records that report one birthday, and then you find another record that gives a completely different birthday, chances are the record that differs from everything else is probably not accurate, if you can’t find anything else that matches it.

Lisa: So, you’re saying if one thing stands out as different while everything else seems to be lining up, then we give it less weight. That makes sense. And I imagine that there are some dates out there that just don’t make sense, right?

Lindsay: Yes, that’s right.

Question #4: Is the birthdate plausible?

(04:50) You’re going to want to take into consideration everything that you know about the person when you have conflicting information. Look at all of the records you have related to them in their immediate family. That should clue you in on whether or not a certain birthday is even plausible or makes sense.

For example, if someone is listed in the 1860 census, they couldn’t have been born in 1861 or later. Or if they had an older brother who was born in 1875 their birth date would have to be at least nine months after the older sibling’s birthday.

Lisa: That sounds logical. When you’re in the heat of a research challenge, sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of those very simple discrepancies. What else should we be asking ourselves?

Question #5: Is the birthdate inaccurate on purpose?

(06:00) Lindsay: The last question that I recommend you ask yourself is, in this situation, is there a reason that the source would be dishonest? There are a lot of reasons why someone may have lied about their age. I’m sure most of us have heard about boys claiming to be older than they actually were in order to be eligible for military service.

Some people may have lied just for the sake of appearances. For example, I can think of an instance in my own family tree where I have a female ancestor who was about seven or eight years older than her husband. Once they were married, all of a sudden her birth year in census records became much later because she apparently didn’t want people to know she was so much older than her husband, or they just assumed that they were closer in age. So that’s one reason why someone could be dishonest.

Another possible reason for dishonesty could be that they had a financial incentive. My grandfather got his driver’s license when he was 15. He lied about his age for many years. His driver’s license never had the right age on it.

There are all sorts of reasons that people lie. So, you’ll just want to ask yourself, is there a reason? Did they stand to gain something from being dishonest?

Lisa: That’s a very good point. It makes me think back to my first job. If anybody ever finds my first job application, they will find a bit of a discrepancy on the age because I was really anxious to get to work. I was 15, and you had to be 16 to work. But I don’t do that anymore!

Birth Record Substitutes

When we’re looking at these kinds of records, and you were talking about finding additional records to corroborate what we’re finding, what are some of the birth records substitutes that we could be looking for?

(08:15) Lindsay: Yes, fortunately, even in the years before state issued birth certificates, there are a lot of other sources that we can turn to that would give a birth date. Probably the best sources out there would be a family Bible or a baptismal record.  Chances are, they were created very close to the birth, or not very long after.

If your ancestor lost a parent at a young age, there may be guardianship records that would record their birth date.

If your ancestor served in the military, there could be various military records, enlistment records, pension records, or World War One World War Two draft registration cards that would record birth dates. They’re both available on Ancestry.

Older headstones are another source. They might not record a birth date, but I’ve seen many where they’ll record the death date and give the person’s very specific age in years, days and months. And so even if it doesn’t record the actual birth date, you can calculate it.

There are also death certificates and obituaries. There are also many records that we record a person’s age at the time that the record was created. Census records are of course a big one, and marriage records. You can use those to help calculate a range of when their birth may have occurred.

Lisa: As you list those records, I think of so many others too, like a passport application. I know I’ve seen them on Ancestry.com. There are lots of different opportunities to come up with some additional records to help determine the true birthdate.

Case Study Strategies for Solving Conflicting Birthdates

In your article in Family Tree Magazine, you provided a great case study. I always think it’s so interesting when we take the theory behind what we’re doing and really apply it to something. Tell us about the case study dealing with these discrepancies in birth records.

(10:41) Lindsay: I came across this situation a few times in my research, but probably the most interesting and perplexing case is the one I shared in the article. It’s about my great, great, grandfather, named Thomas H. Higgins. He was born in Pennsylvania in the 1850s which was many any years before Pennsylvania started issuing birth certificates. Pennsylvania didn’t start until 1906.

STRATEGY: Find out when your ancestor’s state started issuing birth certificates.

Fortunately, his life is very well documented. I have many records that record a birth date for him. Unfortunately, very few of these records match. I actually found six different birth dates for him. I went through each record and evaluated it based on the questions that we just talked about.

Initially, I believed he was born on December 9, 1856. I got that birth date from what I believe was a very, very reliable source. That birthdate had appeared in a biography my grandfather had written about him. It had also appeared in a school application I found. It also appeared in his mother’s Civil War, widows pension application, so that that date came from his mother!

However, as I continued to research him, I started to find many records that did not match that birthday and that made me start to question the accuracy of the 1856 birth date. I started to find quite a few records that said that he was born more than a year earlier in August 1855. Initially, I didn’t put much stock into some of these records, because quite often he was the source of the information. He actually was not a very reliable source because I also know that he had a history of lying about his age!

As I mentioned previously, quite often, young boys would claim to be older to enlist in the military. But in his case, he actually claimed to be about 15 or 16 years younger than he was in order to be able to enlist in the military. He was in his 60s during World War I, and he claimed to be in his 40s in order to enlist. So, I was skeptical of any record where he was the source. I wasn’t sure whether or not to believe him.

STRATEGY: Collect as many birth records as possible

Then I started to find other records. I found an additional birthdate buried in his mother’s Civil War pension application. I then found a baptismal record. They both corroborated the August 1855 birthdate. And, of course, if he was baptized in March of 1856, he couldn’t have been born in December 1856.

What was the reason for these multiple birthdates? Well, it turns out his parents weren’t married until April 1855, about four months before the August 1855 birth date. So, I believe that he was actually born in August 1855 and his mother fibbed about that in order to hide the fact that he was only born a few months after their marriage.

Lisa: That’s a great example of a reason why somebody might fudge things a little bit.

STRATEGY: Chart out the conflicting birthdates and sources.

I also really liked in the article how you shared a chart, almost like a timeline, but really charted out all the different items. It really helps you see the whole picture of all these conflicting dates, where they’re coming from, when they were created, all those things that you mentioned so that we can try to make a final determination.

The article is called Birthday wishes and it appears in the July / August 2022 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

About Author and Genealogist Lindsey Harner

Where can we learn more about what you’re up to these days?

(15:55) Lindsay: I focus on Pennsylvania and New York research primarily in the 19th and 20th centuries. I’m always busy working on that. And you can find me on my website Lindsay’s Histories. I also have a blog there that you can check out and read more about my research.

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All About GEDCOM Genealogy Files – Audio Podcast Episode 273

The GEDCOM digital file format is essential to genealogy. My expert guest from FamilySearch explains what a GEDCOM is, how to use it, and the most recent changes. He’ll also answer some of the most common GEDCOM questions. 

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We have a WINNER! Family Tree Magazine Giveaway

Congratulations to Amanda, the winner of our Family Tree Magazine Digital Subscription Giveaway!

We did the giveaway to celebrate my article in the December 2013 issue of Family Tree Magazine, co-written with Genealogy Gems Contributing Editor Sunny Morton. The article is all about collaborating on our genealogy research.

family history genealogy blogs are cousin baitI think it’s cool that Amanda’s big on collaboration herself. She blogs about her research at ABT-UNK. (Yes, that’s the name of her blog: it combines two common genealogy abbreviations for “about” and “unknown.”) Amanda points us to a recent post, “a really good example of collaboration via my blog.  The two photos in the post http://www.honeytraveler.com/pharmacy/ were provided by two cousins of different degrees who found me via my blog, and five different people (so far) have been involved in identifying the people in the “Christmas Cousins” picture.  I’ve connected with lots of other kin who found me via my blog (including a distant cousin in Lithuania, who helped me break through a brick wall there), and they have provided a wealth of information and wonderful photographs!”

Congratulations, Amanda, both on winning our giveaway and on your excellent research and blog. Keep it up! And thanks to Family Tree Magazine Editor Diane Haddad for donating the subscription.

Find Your Ancestors in Freedmen’s Bureau Records–or Help Others Do the Same

freedmens bureau announcementThe more I learn about U.S. history and records, the more I appreciate the challenges faced by those researching their African-American roots. In addition to the emotional toll of learning about their ancestors’ hardships, today’s researchers face the practical challenges of finding kin in records that mostly ignored their existence.

That’s why I’m super excited that the Freedmen’s Bureau records are finally being fully indexed. Scattered records are already transcribed (see the Freedmen’s Bureau Online). But there hasn’t been a comprehensive index of its 1.5 million state field agency documents. These include military pensions, marriage records, property claims, hospital records, trial summaries, labor contracts, school rolls, registers and censuses. Many of the four million African-Americans freed from slavery are mentioned, as are many white Southerners.

FamilySearch indexers began quietly indexing Freedmen’s Bureau records in 2009: the state of Virginia’s records are already searchable. Last week, in observance of the Juneteenth holiday (which celebrates emancipation), FamilySearch issued a call to action. They asked for help indexing the rest of the Freedmen’s Bureau within the year.

“Records, histories and stories will be available on DiscoverFreedmen.org,” says a release. “Additionally, the records will be showcased in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is currently under construction on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and expected to open in late 2016.”

freedmens bureau infographicHere’s a quick history lesson: The Freedmen’s Bureau was organized after the Civil War to aid newly-freed slaves in 15 states and Washington, DC. For several years it gathered “handwritten, personal information on freed men, women and children, including marriage and family information, military service, banking, school, hospital and property records,” according to FamilySearch.

The richest genealogical records of the Freedmen’s Bureau are in the field office records of each state. Click here to download a PDF from the National Archives about these original records.

Find more tips on finding African-American and other Southern U.S. ancestors here on the Genealogy Gems website. Recent posts include:

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