I received a great question from reader BC. He said, “What can I do if I find information that is clearly inaccurate?”
Yes. It may come as a surprise to learn that not all historic records are accurate. I think truth is an ideal, and accuracy is a spectrum. I like to think of genealogy as being layers of truth. The more records you’re able to find about an event date (e.g., birth, marriage, death, immigration, etc.) the more likely that date is to be accurate, which is why genealogy is more about proving a case than finding a single record.
Linda’s totally unofficial ranking of record accuracy
If I had to rank record categories based on accuracy, from more accurate to less accurate, I’d say they are:
- Birth certificate if in hospital
- Medical / Hospital records
- Land records
- Marriage records
- Will / Probate records
- Birth certificate if not in hospital (late registrations)
- Death certificate if in hospital
- Cemetery records
- Death certificate if not in hospital
- Census records
- Newspaper articles
- Inscribed Photos
- Family history books / family bibles
- Family stories
The above is very far from an exhaustive list.
In my opinion, the major differences in accuracy are i) direct or indirect source; ii) period of time elapsed since the event occured, and iii) position of the person recording the information. (All this is before the issues of technology: transcription, optical character recognition, metadata, and artificial intelligence, among others.)
Direct or indirect – what’s the difference?
Direct evidence means the people were present saw, heard, or touched the event in question. They were there.
Indirect evidence is evidence after the fact, by people who are remembering, researching, writing, attesting the event.
Why is period of time elapsed important?
The longer the period of time elapsed, the less likely the memory of the event’s details are to be right.
Imagine you’re filling in a census survey, and they ask, How long has it been since you moved into the province? If you’re still unpacking boxes, you’re likely to recall the month of the event with accuracy. If it’s been a while, you may be searching in your memory for the cue: Was it summer? How old was our child at the time? Was it before or after we got the car?
Now imagine it’s 1911, you have a grade 7 education and 10 children, and the census taker is asking you, without any preparation, What are the months and years of birth of all your children? You’re likely to recall the most recent birth and the first birth without too much difficulty, but the rest?
What is the position of the person answering the question?
Think of it this way: How invested in the truth is the person recording the information? Is there a professional reputation (e.g., doctors, nurses, land agents, lawyer, judge, notary public) on the line? Is it great-aunt Martha (name pulled at random), who was a stickler for facts and figures, or was it fun-loving uncle Joey, who loved making things up? Other factors also get in the way of accuracy, such as level of education, familiarity with the language being spoken, and personal reasons for not wanting to tell the whole truth.
- A birth certificate (if the birth was in a hospital) is a recording of birth by medical professionals in a system.
- A death certificate is information given that is to the best of their knowledge, often by a relative, but in the absence of a relative, a 3rd party.
- A marriage license is two people + witnesses attesting (promising, but legally) that the information they give is true, and is based on information they give to the best of their knowledge. A birth date in this case is based on the person knowing / remembering their own date of birth as told to them.
- A census record is information about a household by whoever happened to be answering the door that day.
- An inscribed photo could be info from the photographer immediately after the fact; the same person 25 years later who has forgotten a lot of details; or someone completely unrelated who is guessing.
- A family history book is a story about a family by a person who doesn’t want to ruffle any feathers in the family or the community.
A specific example: Index result from the BC Archives
In this record, we see an index result from the British Columbia Archives at Victoria, BC, Canada. In it, we see a record of an event registered in 1947 – the death of Wing Yim Yip, whose age is given as 41. To learn the truth, I requested and paid for a copy of the death certificate, which showed the correct age of 21 years. In other words, we have two records – an index and a death certificate – only one of which is correct. (If I had to guess, I’d say this is a transcription error.)
For the whole story, see The uncle I didn’t know I had – finding Yim.
Thank you to reader BC, for the question. Thank you to my teachers and mentors at Oslers LLP and Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP, where I collectively spent a decade as a legal assistant absorbing the nuances and philosophies of truth and accuracy as applied in a legal system. Thank you to my teachers and supporters at Acadia University and Bridgewater College who thought I should go to law school myself – it turns out I love law, but not enough to dedicate my life to it.
Genealogy, on the other hand… genealogy has claimed me and won’t let go.