26 March 2017

When You Can't Agree to Disagree

When working on your family tree, there will be times when you have conflicting information about someone. I had two documented birth dates for my grandfather.

When you know they can't both be true, which one do you believe?

I follow a couple of rules here. Rule #1: The earliest recorded date is probably correct. When I'm dealing with very old documents from the old country (in my case, Italy), I know that my rural ancestors had lives nothing like our own, and it was entirely possible to lose track of your own age. Imagine that!

So if I'm comparing birth records from the 1800s for several siblings, and the parents' ages never match up, I put more faith in whichever number was recorded the earliest.

You're more likely to know your birth year when you're 20, and your widow is less likely to remember it when you die at a ripe old age.

Here's an example: An 1840 birth record shows the mother is 30 in 1840, so you write down that she was born in 1810. An 1842 birth record says the same woman is 35 years old, meaning she was born in 1807. Then the same woman's 1880 death record states that she was 65, which would mean she was born in 1815. That's when the earliest record is most likely to be correct.

Getting back to my grandfather, the family always believed his birth date to be May 30, 1891, and that's what we put on his tombstone. But after he passed away I found his World War II draft registration card, and he must have said his birth date was May 28, 1894. I don't see how someone could misunderstand if he spoke aloud—even in his heavy accent—May the thirtieth, 1891.

Once I found this draft registration card, I was left with the task of hopefully finding his birth record someday. Thankfully, someday came along recently, and I have my proof. Rule #2: Some documents are more official than others.


Don't believe every bit of information you find. You need to weigh the value of one document versus another. My grandfather's birth record clearly overrules his World War II registration card. It actually follows both rules because it was recorded much earlier, and it is an official, certified document.

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