11 November 2020

Reliable Sources

We tend to believe that certain sources of information are final authorities. Birth certificates, tombstones, newspaper announcements, "official" records of all kinds -- these seem accurate. Yet we often find contradictions and strange inaccuracies in these records. Why?

Misunderstandings

Most of us have had the experience of ordering food in a restaurant, only to get something different from what we were expecting. We don't always hear what other people think they are saying. This happens, not just in noisy restaurants, but in busy offices and everywhere people are trying to convey information to each other.

For example, my Aunt Ruth was born at home on 11 September 1900. Her father walked into town a couple of days later to officially report the birth to the County Clerk. The day he made the report was September 15, and that was the date that was put on her birth certificate. For the rest of her life, Ruth was annoyed by inaccurate, yet "official" information, despite her efforts to get the record corrected. Eighty-six years later, the Social Security Death Index included that wrong birth date, and of course it still appears in various databases derived from official records.

Bad Memory

Most people think they have accurate memories, but study after study has demonstrated that we don't remember things as well as we think we do. Was Uncle Pete's first wife named Shirley or Shannon? (Actually, it was Sharon.) How many children did that distant cousin have? (Grandma thinks there were five, but it just seemed that way because the three of them made so much noise running around with the neighbor kids.)

Assumptions and Guesses

Often, people think they know something they don't really know, just because it seems right. One of my contacts remembered all her grandmother's stories of growing up on a farm in Iowa, so she assumed Grandma was born in Iowa, and was frustrated at not being able to find her birth records. It turned out that Grandma had been born in Ohio, and the family moved to Iowa when she was little.

Death certificates are especially problematic, since the person in question isn't available to provide information. Often the informant is someone who doesn't really know the facts, and just guesses.

Lies

The thing people lie about most often seems to be age. Out of vanity, many people pretend to be younger than they are. In times past, young men sometimes claimed to be older, in order to join the military.

In many old documents, I've found divorced people who claimed to be widowed, people who misstated their marriage date in order to hide the fact that the bride was pregnant on her wedding day, teenagers who claimed to be 21 so they could marry without parents' permission, people listed as married even though they weren't, non-citizens who claimed they were born in the U.S., probably to avoid immigration and residence problems, and a vast array of petty deceptions over things that may heve felt important to someone at the time, but seem insignificant now.

General Confusion

Death certificates are often used as a source of information about a person's parents. Often, however, the informant provides the name of a stepparent rather than the biological parent. The mother's maiden name may be incorrect because she was married more than once and kept changing her name.

Bad handwriting, faded documents, and eroded tombstones lead to mistakes that spread to other sources. All too often, a 3 is mistaken for an 8, or entire words morph into something completely new.

Names don't get much respect. For some people, the order of first name, middle name is interchangeable. William John becomes John William, Willie J., or J.W. Exactness doesn't exist. Mariah might be rendered as Marie, Mary, Mary Ann, or Marian. Sometimes when a young child dies, the parents recycle the name to the next child. I once found a family that had four sons, all with the same name, each one named after a deceased predecessor. One of my ancestors was named Simon and had a brother named Simeon. Even during their lifetimes, the similarity of their names caused confusion. Decades later, family historians couldn't keep them straight, and often thought they were the same person.

Carelessness

I have found family trees that show people who died prior to birth, people who married after death, people who married their own great-grandparents, and many other absurdities. Mistakes like these are typically caused by typos that weren't corrected, or confusing two people with similar names. It surprises me a bit that so many people just mindlessly copy these things and pass them on.

What to Do?

When faced with conflicting facts, I try to pick the one that seems the most likely in context. A document where the person wrote his own name seems more authoritative than one where someone else filled out a form. Doing the math helps. If the record indicates that a woman gave birth at age 84, I know there's a mistake. If someone has a 60-year-old woman who lived her whole life in Indiana suddenly married to a 20-year-old in Alaska, I'm skeptical. If two pieces of information seem equally likely, I list both as possible alternates. If I can't make sense of something that seems crazy, I write notes explaining the problem.

Check, double check, triple check.

 

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