My great-grandfather’s sister-in-law died in Montana in the 1940s. The Illinois native was born in the 1880s in Hancock County, Illinois. At this point in the research, her place of birth has been recorded as:

  • Breckenridge, Illinois
  • West Point, Illinois
  • Sutter, Illinois

Obviously a person cannot be born in more than one place. These places of birth are all obtained from sources that contain secondary information regarding this individual’s place of birth: her marriage record, death record, and obituary.

Until I obtain a copy of her birth record from the county (the most likely source to contain primary information as to her place of birth), I’m not going to choose which one of these is the “best.” If I cannot obtain that record and am left relying on the materials I currently have, I will have to contemplate what to indicate is her place of birth.

My answer would be to indicate that she was born in St. Albans or Walker Township in Hancock County, Illinois. Of course that’s not “one place” or a name that fits any standardized naming system.

But based on what I know now, it seems a very reasonable way to go given that the three locations are located in those two townships. While this relative cannot be born in three locations, the difference likely comes from what the informant on the record knew about her birth–what she had told them or some relative had told them. It is possible she lived in all three places as a child, lived near them as a child, attended elementary school in one of the places, etc. All of these situations could cause someone to believe it was her place of birth.

So if I have to rely on these records, I’m going with “St. Albans or Walker Township, Hancock County, Illinois,” as this person’s place of birth. My source for this location will actually be all those records that indicate a place of birth in one of those two townships–not just one. My notes will indicate that I have no reason to believe one record over the other and that since they are consistent with these two townships (which share a six mile border), that broader location has been entered as the place of birth.

My transcription of these three documents would include the location as stated on the document. I would not change that as documents are to be transcribed exactly as they are written.

But–unless a source with primary information can be located–I may be left with this location that’s not a standard one.

Things like this are why genealogical software packages are not always as perfect as some would like us to believe.

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  1. I have ancestors in Yorkshire. The locations Thornton on Spalding Moor and Thornton by Pocklington is the same place. There are a boat load of tiny little hamlets around Seaton Ross/Pocklington/Market Weighton. Each little hamlet is by somewhere else. Drop me out of a space ship anywhere in the area and I will find my way home. Each “town” is a mile from the next town. And the town that’s described as 2 farm houses on the road to..Aughton!

  2. Amen. Most of my relatives who were born before 1920 were born on farms, and US farms are usually not on incorporated (town) land. Our habit/standard of referring to places by town-county-state breaks down when used for many of our ancestors. And it’s best to be forthright about our uncertainty, as you are.

    In one year, the residents might get their mail from a post office in one place, and it could change the next year, while they stayed on the same farm. Post offices opened and closed, they were not necessarily in towns either. The mailing address might be an official post office name, but the postal counter was at someone’s house or business. And it might be 1/4 mile from someone’s farm but in a different county.

    I suspect that our ancestors felt boxed in by the same town-minded way of referring to their birthplaces. On a WWI draft card they might say they were born in Town-1 but use Town-2 on their WWII draft card. Neither answer was true. They really meant “Max Yasgur’s farm.”

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