The Human Element

Congratulations! You’ve successfully amassed a bunch of documents and information about your ancestor. Now the real fun begins: Analysis.Looking closely at the evidence you’ve collected, you’ll most likely see conflicting reports for birth, marriage, immigration, or maybe even death dates. This week, Jayne explained how to handle this conflicting information [link to Jayne’s post]. But let’s not forget the human element of these genealogical complications, i.e. the people who reported these conflicting dates.When I analyze my research findings, I do my best to adhere to the teachings of the recognized authority on genealogical evidence, the wonderful Elizabeth Shown Mills (known to loyal followers simply as ESM).ESM gives us a great way to process our findings, by recognizing that each piece is comprised of three key elements, which belong to one of two sub-categories:

Genealogy Nerd
  1. Source: Where does the information come from?

→ Original (scan/photo of document)→ Derivative (index, register)

  1. Information: Who reported it?

→ Primary (first-hand)→ Secondary (second-hand or more)

  1. Evidence: What does it say?

→ Direct (detailed)→ Indirect (estimated/unsure)

Genealogy meme, How we remember our ancestors

A copy of a birth certificate (or a very clear image of it) that is signed by one or both parents is a good example of the best kind of documentation you can get; an original source with primary information and direct evidence. Of course, these favored elements do not guarantee that the information contained within the document is 100% accurate, but it’s the best we can do if everyone involved has already shuffled off this mortal coil.But don’t let all these categories and classifications gets you down! Here’s a good rule of thumb: The earlier the document was produced in the lifetime of your research subject, the more accurate it tends to be. It’s a good bet that your ancestor’s parents knew his birth date better than his children, since his parents were actually present when it happened.So what about people who reported different dates on different documents for the same event in their own lives? It is not unusual to find WWI and WWII Draft Cards for the same man with conflicting birth dates, and it’s even more common to discover census records for the same immigrant which reflect inconsistent years for their immigration. There are a million reasons why these things happened. In genealogical research, Why? is always the hardest question, because it may have more than one answer, and most of the time it is not plainly written in black and white.The first step to finding the answer is taking into account everything you know about your research subject. When you encounter two or more conflicting, self-reported dates, take time to consider the circumstances of those reports within the context of your ancestor’s life.

  • Where were they born, and into what ethnic, cultural, and/or religious group?
  • How important was/is this type of date (birth, marriage, death, etc) to their native culture?
  • What was their native language?
  • Where was your ancestor living when they reported each of the conflicting dates? Did they move around?
  • Do you know about an experience they had which could have significantly impacted their decision to report consistently or inconsistently?
  • Is it possible that they did not actually know which date was correct?

Discovering the answer to Why? is tantamount to unearthing genealogical buried treasure – just as laborious, but totally worth the work. Get creative, and dig deep!

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March 5, 2018
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