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Lifestyle Stories

Don't trust birth date, even if set in stone

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 02:37 PM

Genealogists have a special affinity for cemeteries, but our way of showing it might be a little offbeat. Instead of approaching them with reverence and quiet solitude, we tend to celebrate and dance happy little jigs among the tombstones.

We're celebrating, of course, that we have discovered our ancestor's final resting place; we have a sense of victory.

But here I go, throwing cold water on those celebrations. Here's hoping you have no reason to doubt there really is an ancestor under the discovered stone (although recent shenanigans at veterans cemeteries give us pause).

The real question is whether we can believe what we read on the stone. Should we doubt what we read even if we have no obvious reason to question it? Of course we should – good genealogists doubt and question EVERYTHING!

Here's the perfect example:

Back in the fall, my husband and I visited the Smyrna Baptist Church Cemetery in Houston County, Ala., where we found the tombstone of his great-grandfather, John J. Whiddon. His stone says he was born Nov. 30, 1870, and that he died July 30, 1945.

We had no reason to doubt either of those dates, but we needed to verify them.

The first piece of evidence was his death certificate. That document doesn't have an actual date of birth – rather it states he was 75 years old at his death. The math puts his date of birth at 1870. So there is nothing there that causes suspicion.

A check of John's obituary showed a small discrepancy; it said he was 76 when he died.

We then turned to the censuses – and we all know how notoriously unreliable those documents are when it comes to ages. Censuses are taken every 10 years, so theoretically a person should get 10 years older with each enumeration. But experience teaches us that sometimes the ages were off by a few or many years.

The 1930 census (the latest available, because they remain shrouded in secrecy for 72 years) shows John was 60 years old on official census day of April 1. If we can believe the November birth month on his tombstone, this should mean that John actually was born in 1869.

Somehow the census taker missed John in 1920, but in 1910 his age was listed as 41 as of the official April 15 census day (the official census day varies with each census). Still working on the premise that November was the correct birth month, according to this census, John was born in 1868.

So here we are seeing the typical discrepancies all researchers must tolerate in census research. But the 1900 census calls for more attention. Not only did this census ask for a person's age, it asked for a specific birth month and year. John's age is listed as 31 and his birth is shown as November 1868.

The 1890 census was destroyed, so we skip to the 1880 census, where we find John as an 11-year-old child in his father's household. That should have been his age as of the official census day of June 1 – allowing us to project again that he was born in 1868.

And with the 1870 census comes the moment of truth: John was listed as a 1-year-old child in his father's household. That official census day was June 1, almost six months before the tombstone said he was born -- on Nov. 30, 1870. If the November 1868 birth were correct, then John would have turned a year old in November 1869 and would not yet have been 2 years old on June 1, 1870 – thus he would in fact have been a 1-year-old child when the census taker visited the Whiddon household.

Does this seem a lot of work to quibble over a date of birth? Absolutely. There are three dates that we genealogists strive to learn: birth, marriage and death. So quibble we must.

We must look at every document where we could reasonably expect to find a date of birth for a person. We would hope for a family Bible and a military record, but in John's case, we don't know what happened to the Bible and he was never in the military.

We'll keep looking, because genealogical research is never really finished.

But we have sound logic and research on our side. I believe we can definitively state that John's date of birth on his tombstone is incorrect. The birth month likely is correct; while his family might not have known his birth year, it is likely they celebrated Nov. 30. The month is supported by the 1900 census, and the other census dates fall into place working from a birthday later in the year than June.

So we are on safe ground to say that John probably was born in November 1868. We'd like to be more definitive than that, but if we are to be honest with ourselves, we must leave it at that – for now.


Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogy questions and event announcements to her in care of Baylife, The Tampa Tribune, 200 S. Parker St., Tampa, FL 33606 or stmoody0720@mac.com. She regrets that she is unable to assist with personal research and cannot respond to requests for locating or researching specific individuals.

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