Expecting precision with dates – Common genealogy mistakes

I found a fun video from Family History Fanatics listing seven common genealogy mistakes. I’ve made every single one of these mistakes and have some guidelines for avoiding them.

In this video, I’ll cover the second error, expecting dates to be exact. They’re not, though, and I see four different types here:

  1. Calculations based on age made by modern transcribers.
  2. People not knowing a date, or just making a best guess.
  3. Flat out lying about your age.
  4. Contemporary… imprecision or flexibility, for lack of a better word.

For the first, lots of genealogy websites try to make your life easier by taking numerical ages on records on subtracting the year of the record to give you a birth year. I definitely find it helpful—I’m much better at math with variables and ranges than I am with doing subtraction in my head.

This matters because the calculations can be a year or so off. For example, the 1860 census was taken over a five-month period in the latter half of the year, so a 27-year-old with a birthday in December would have been born in 1832, while a twenty-seven-year-old born in May would have been born in 1833.

One of my core principles in genealogy research is to read everything, and that means examining the original, which will tell you clearly if a year was actually recorded, or if it was just calculated by the transcriber.

For the second, look at my second great-grandmother, Mary Shiel Gallagher. I know the story of her life from family oral history. She was born near Swinford, Ireland, spent some time in Worcestershire, England, and then immigrated to Philadelphia. Without that story, though, I’d have real trouble tracing her using birth years, with different records suggesting she was born 1844, 1849, 1851 and 1857. I don’t think Mary even knew what year she was born.

For the third, people probably started lying about their age the moment we started recording birth years. Maybe a woman wants to marry a younger man, but that’s not culturally acceptable. So… she says she’s the same age. Maybe a boy gets caught up in a patriotic fervor and tells a military recruiter he’s two years older than he really is so he can join the army. Anyway, I’ve got a whole video dedicated to this one—you can access it via the card up above.

The last one is the probably the most difficult to understand for us today: I mean, I know the birth years for everyone in my family (and my wife’s family), and from that I can get marriage years pretty much right on. But… precise dates are part of our culture. Go back 150 years, did it really matter if you told a census taker the right age for everyone in your family? Not really.
The only times your age really mattered were for minors trying to marry, inherit or enter into a contract.

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