It started out as an aside as part of a blog post.

And now I don’t know when my great-grandfather Neill was born–at least not precisely.

I’ve got 18 September 1875 as his date of birth in my files. That’s a “grandfathered” date, which means it was one that I entered in the early days of my research before I had been converted to the importance of sources and citation. It could be that I had a source and I simply typed in the wrong month–the number date is in agreement with the other one I have. There’s no doubt as to who his parents are or where he was born. It’s just that other records indicate he was born on 18 April 1875.

What I need to do is locate all the records on him that I can and see what dates of birth those records provide. I should not just look at the records that are online or easy to search and locate.

While I would dearly love to obtain a contemporary record of his birth, that’s probably not going to happen. He was born in Illinois in 1875 (or so it looks), which is two years before counties began keeping vital records of births and deaths. His family was not members of a church that kept any sort of birth records, there is no family bible, and no diaries or letters are around mentioning his dte of birth.

What I’ll probably have to rely on are:

  • All extant census records between 1880 and 1940 which will provide an age. The 1900 census will give a month and year of birth.
  • World War I Draft registration
  • Age at marriage
  • Death certificate
  • Obituary
  • Tombstone
  • Social Security Number Application

These records will not all be consistent. Not all will provide the precise date of birth. Some will only provide the year of birth. Some will provide an age on a specific date, which is the least specific of all (since it really just gives a range of birth dates). These pieces of information will have different perceived levels of reliability. That perception of reliability stems from the probable informant, the likelihood they had accurate information to begin with, and how reliable the record type is in general type is in general.

I can’t just “average” the dates or years and say “here’s my conclusion.”

I can’t just throw out what I think is wrong without discussing why I think it’s wrong.

I shouldn’t just look at one record and quit.







3 Responses

  1. Never assume WWI record is correct. Many men lied about their age to enlist. Birth month and date may correct. With year off.

    • In some cases that may be true. I’m doubtful it was for my great-grandfather as he was in his early 40s when he registered for the WW1 draft.

  2. When my tree was filled with a manageable number of people, that seemed like a really good idea and I did it. Now. My tree has 5000+ people and I find myself changing dates that I have, only to change them back again. There was a day when all I was looking for was when my grandparents quit living together. Then I thought 1800/to the edge of the Atlantic was far enough. And now I’m in too deep to get out. “Too big to fail” to be politically correct? After the last big overhaul which turned out to be wrong, I will make a note about something I question but I won’t change it for that person. There must have been a reason I thought that, even if it was questionable when I found it. The absence of documents is a PITA but so are documents that don’t match especially when you know you have the right person. How many Engelbert Humperdinks can there be? You’d be surprised!

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