Records lie to us. The very records we depend upon to reconstruct our families, lie all the time. Inaccurate information is everywhere.
A Few Examples
In this 1900 census, my third great-grandmother Hannah Harbor reported that she was widowed:
But her former husband Joseph was alive and well. Sadly, he left her for another woman. He was also committing lots of crimes, so I probably wouldn’t want to claim him either.
Aunt Hattie reported on her sister’s death certificate that their mother’s name was Margaret (Simpson), wife of Levi:
But her correct name was Martha Simpson, not Margaret as was recorded. Margaret was Martha’s stepmother.
Ferdinand Holt migrated to Indianapolis, Indiana in the early 20th century. He filled out a World War II Draft card that proclaimed his birth date of 6 Dec 1895:
But he wasn’t born in 1895. He was probably born in 1887 which was recorded on his earlier World War I Draft Card:
Oddly, the actual day (Dec 6) stayed the same, even though the year changed by 8!
Records lie, manipulate and deceive us. Some of the examples above kept me going in the wrong direction for years. People forgot, lied, misled and simply left out important information. No source is infallible.
We have to consider the entire body of evidence we have gathered, and not just one document. In fact, you can’t prove anything with one document.
We have to continue to grow as researchers and learn the best practices in the field.
Every document has the potential to contain inaccurate information. Viewing records in isolation and accepting what they purport as true can’t be our practice.
Learning my ten key genealogy principles can help.
So, what documents have been lying to you?
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.
Excellent Post! I can totally relate to this. Like you said, you have to look at multiple sources to get a proper sense of what was accurate your ancestor.
Thank Andrea! I’m still trying to sort out more of my “lying” records;)
Oh, I could not agree more! My mother’s death certificate gave her “improved” birth year, not her real one, which I learned only from talking with my cousin and finding the 1920 census when she was 5 years old. She wanted to be a year younger, so she just declared a new birth year. And her real birth year came just before vital records started in SC.
I don’t even take census ages (and inferred birth years) seriously any more! They wobble all over the place, from one census to the next. People change the surname spelling, in my family, all through the 1800s and early 1900s. On my own birth certificate, my father’s middle name has a new creative spelling. My father’s co-workers at the Veterans’ Administration had a saying, “Good enough for government work.” That’s what we’ve got with so many of these records . . . we take them with a grain of salt and negotiate a likely “truth” among all of them.
By the way, I don’t have a wordpress blog, I just joined wordpress to make a comment on your blog. My blog, in case you want to know, is . My name is Mariann.
Thank you for this so-true blog. So clearly illustrated!
LOL! I could not agree with you more and I must say that I feel and share your sentiments exactly when dealing with census records. But as one of your previous post states, it is so important for us access the original documents and thoroughly analyze them line by line and make note of the inconsistencies that we find. I have a similar situation going on right now. So I’ve stopped the presses and have ordered copies of other records so that I can make more accurate decision about my findings. Great post!