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.
8 thoughts on “What if the record is wrong?”
Great post!! I will add it to my toolbox for others to find.
As a trained historian, I learned fairly early on that every document has a bias and you have to take that into consideration – the people giving the information might have reason to lie or just, as you point out, not recall it accurately. Plus, whoever took down the information might get it wrong.
My 2nd great-grandmother lied on her marriage record, saying she was a widow and that her father was George Lawley, a carpenter. She was single, with a child born out of wedlock. I’m pretty certain her husband knew the truth, but for form’s sake they decided to lie (though they didn’t think it through as the name she gave, as a widow, was the same as her “father’s” name ) – she too had been born before her mother married, and her mother also lied on her marriage record. I can only imagine how difficult it would be standing before a minister and admitting to the “shame” of being a single mother and the daughter of a single mother.
Documents can tell us so much, but there’s always a story behind the information they contain.
Hi Teresa, thank you very much indeed for linking to my post!
“Every document has a bias” -That is so elegantly put, I’m going to use that from now on. Absolutely, I agree with you 100%. And what a story you’ve unraveled about your ancestors – it so eloquently illustrates how a document might not be entirely right in all its facts. I can just imagine you asking yourself, “Hold on a moment, that’s not right. What’s wrong with this story?” and then going on to uncover the truth.
There are documents and there is the story. Together, they show a truer picture of the whole.
I would love to ruffle some feathers. I can’t find anything to make ruffles. I thought if I could, maybe someone in my family would take an interest in everything I have found, mundane as it may be.
Hi Toni! I have so much sympathy for you. You are not alone. If anything, I’d say most passionate family historians would say the same. My advice is to find your people: genealogists & historians who share a love of family history. Join genealogy groups online and genealogy societies. As for finding the feather-ruffling facts… you will. Uncover the story. For example, I once did research into a respectable SK family who thought they’d “done” (haha! no genealogy is ever done) their genealogy. I found the story of an indomitable woman whose husband died in 1900 from a farmiing accident, leaving her with 9 kids. How that family survived the next hard years, and how that woman kept it all going, was a story worth celebrating. She was the mighty progenitor of that family but her story was unknown to them. Keep going, Toni, and find your genealogy family.
Very nicely laid out, Linda – I’d agree with your listing. So often we find many dates for what we now think should be easy to remember! But our ancestors rarely ever had to fill in forms – so the basic dates could get mis-remembered. And then the next question is “what do I put in my tree software?” – Answer: all of them, with a more or less final note about which might be considered most likely to be correct. Although I have one in early 1800s with 6 different birthdates at 3 different places. Makes genealogy the puzzle it is.
Oh my gosh, right?!? The further back in time you go, the less reliable the documentation, and all of it predicated on how invested the respondent on telling the truth! In my tree software, I keep all of the dates as well, with notes on where I got the info. This way I can later judge which I feel is more reliable, if any.