Archiver > RESEARCH-HOWTO > 1997-12 > 0882942258

From: Morrow <>
Subject: census and other records
Date: Tue, 23 Dec 1997 21:44:18 -0800

ALL records are developed by humans and subject to error, which is why
you always prefer to have a second source to support any facts you
gather. Regrettably, multiple sources are frequently unavailable so you
have to go with what you can find. All too often, even the first record
is difficult to find.
Many census takers were extraordinarily careful and the record
reflects exactly what they obtained from the householders -- and they
didn't accept information from anyone who wasn't a responsible adult
member of the household.
Unfortunately, a lot of informants -- those who supplied information to
the census takers -- were careless or uncertain regarding facts. And
there were some really lousy census takers!
Essentially the same thing can be said of birth records, death records,
marriage records, baptismal records, or any other source. Therefore, the
more sources you have that say the same thing, the more likely you are
to have correct information. Even that is no guarantee since many of
these sources quite likely relied on the same person for the information
that was written down -- and if the source started with misinformation,
that's what the record will show, too.
I've found marriage licenses that used nicknames instead of the formal
versions. I've got at least one newspaper obituary which mangled the
subject's first name. One couple aged an average of ten years between
the censuses of 1870 and 1880 -- the husband got seven years older, but
his wife aged 13 years (motherhood can be tough, but that seems
Sometimes, what you encounter is humorous: I've one ancestor whose
widow's pension for her husband's service in the War of 1812 was based
in part on submission of the actual pages from the family Bible that
showed her birth and marriage dates (yes, the actual Bible pages are in
the file at the National Archives) -- confirming the authenticity of the
Bible pages are two sworn statements by her daughters. Both sworn
statements end "x, her mark." So people who could neither read nor write
swore the written pages were accurate and truthful -- and it was
accepted as legal evidence!
I laugh about it, but it really doesn't inspire confidence that the
Bible record is correct -- and we have other papers that suggest the
wedding date written in the Bible may have been wrong by two years.
This is a classic example of why genealogy causes some people to
continue the quest in perpetuity. Every single fact source is subject to
error, so every single fact must also be subject to error. We all want
our information to be as accurate as possible. So we all want another
source to confirm the one -- or the 21 -- we already have.
Fortunately, it is at least as fun as it is frustrating.

Duncan Morrow

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