There Won’t Always Be A Precise, Documentable Date

Some individuals and even some genealogical groups “insist” on having a date for every person:

  • a date of birth
  • a date of marriage
  • a date of death

Doesn’t work that way.

The reality is that in some locations and time periods, given the available records, these dates are simply not going to be known precisely.  There are just not the direct records specifically providing such dates. Other records are usually only suggestive of an age (usually being able to legally perform some act) on a specific date or that a person was alive on a certain date.

It’s difficult to pin down an exact date of death for someone who died in Virginia in the late 18th century. Are there records for some individuals during this time that give precise dates? Of course, but individuals for whom death dates can be pinpointed down to the day during this time period are in the minority. Generally speaking the date of death has to be estimated with either a range of dates based on records where the person is mentioned or a “dead by” date based upon a probate. In other locations (eg. New England) there are more records and the likelihood of obtaining a precise date is more likely.

Generally speaking, the more completely exhaustive your search, the better able you will be to either determine the exact date of an event or to approximate it as best you can.

Always source the documents that allow you to reach your conclusion about when an event happened. Even if the time of that event is approximate. In fact, it’s probably more important to cite your sources if a date is approximate and to include your rationalization for why the document(s) suggest that range of dates.

My approximation for the time frame of birth for Peter Bieger (born in the 1820s in Germany) is based upon:

  • The fact he was at least twenty-one when he made a declaration of intention in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1847.
  • The fact that there is no guardian granting him permission to marry in Ohio in 1849.
  • The age range given for him in the 1855 Illinois State Census.

One document alone was not used. All are cited. My notes include a discussion of the documents and my conclusion. Since all sources were used to obtain a range of years of birth, it’s crucial I cite all three documents–not just one of them. That’s so:

  • someone else knows what records I used and can view them
  • I know what records I thought were on “my” Peter Bieger (in case a review of the records is done later to make certain I have the same person in all records)
  • I can see what records were not located

There won’t be an exact date for every event. That’s not my genealogical end game. My end game is to locate as many materials I can so they can be interpreted and analyzed to paint as complete a picture as possible of my person of interest.

If I get the exact date of birth, fine.

But if I can only narrow it down to a year, that’s fine as well.





7 thoughts on “There Won’t Always Be A Precise, Documentable Date

  1. In the genealogical database that I use, I cover this by adding fields such as “Birthdate ” to record the actual complete with reference, and use the “Birth” field for approximations e.g. Before 14/3/1856 if I know the individual was christened/baptised on that day.

    • Since a baptismal date may be months / years / decades after birth (say, among Pietists or at Revival events or when joining a congregation), such a date should always be identified as the type of record, not as a birth-substitute.

      • Exactly–one always needs to indicate exactly what the date was. Even in denominations that practiced infant baptism some baptisms were not performed on infants.

  2. Patty Gilbert says:

    Wow, that’s a lot of food 4 thought. It makes me feel better too. I have been trying to be a perfectionist in finding THE PRECISE record. Now I know it’s not always possible. Thank u for pointing that out.

  3. Sharon Grow says:

    I wish you could tattoo this on the forehead of the Registrar General of DAR! SOMETIMES THERE SIMPLY ISN’T A RECORD !

    • I helped a cousin with bits and pieces of her DAR application on a family I’ve worked on for over thirty years. They wanted “proof” that my third great-grandfather who died in 1884 was buried in a certain cemetery. The stone is still there but illegible today. I transcribed it twenty-five years ago, have current pictures (where just the last name is illegible), and have a copy of the death certificate that lists the burial location. She wasn’t certain that would be “good enough.”

      I wanted to say that unless you can go back in time and take video of the funeral/burial, that’s as good as it’s going to get.

    • Winifred S McNabb says:

      To that I will add a big AMEN! So tired of antagonistic genies in DC over things like this. I say, either loosen up a bit, or require someone who is nearly a CG to prepare the apps. Spend some money on that rather than some of the window dressing, travel, etc. I’m LR chair for my chapter and am getting very frustrated.

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