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June 20, 2018

Primary Records Can Be WRONG!

We all want our genealogy to be accurate.

We search and search for that primary record, the one that we've been told is "THE" record to find -- a death certificate, a church baptismal record, marriage record....

But - beware! Not all primary records are accurate. As good genealogists we must consider that there can be errors. The informant (person giving the information) may not know the answers and may thus provide incorrect details. The clerk recording the information may not hear the response correctly and may enter it incorrectly. The person giving the information may lie, especially about their age.

In my own family tree, my great-grandmother's official government death registration is incorrect. Her parents' names are wrong. Since I already knew who her parents were (Isaac Vollick & Lydia Jamieson) from other genealogy sources, I was completely bewildered at first by seeing her parents given as Stephen Vollick and Mary.

Then it dawned on me - Stephen was my great grandmother's husband's first name (Stephen Peer). Mary was my great grandmother's own name. (Mary Vollick)

So I looked at the informant's name. AHA! The informant was Mary's 17 year old son. Her husband having died long before Mary, and her older children married and gone, the task of answering the official questions fell to her 17 year old son who had cared for her in her final days.

It is easy to see how the young boy, when asked by a government clerk "Father's name?" (meaning father of the deceased), would have replied "Stephen", for in fact Stephen WAS his own father's name.

The question "Mother's name?" referring to the mother of the deceased, would be answered by the boy "Mary" which was HIS mother's name.

And thus the official death registration for parents of Mary (Peer) Vollick daughter of Isaac and Lydia Vollick, is forever rendered as Stephen and Mary Vollick.

So be cautious when you encounter a primary source that simply doesn't match other reliable sources. Investigate! Think! Don't just accept the new "facts" without further legwork to prove or disprove them.


Marian B. Wood said...

Very good advice. I'm especially wary of info on death records, because the informant may not be a family member or may be emotionally upset or may simply not know the answer. My father's death record has his surname wrong and other details slightly off.

Marian Koalski said...

Ohio birth registers date back to 1867 and are lovely, except that the entries were typically brought to the county probate court by the township assessor (or sometimes a doctor) and entered in batches of 20 or so... whenever that official had a chance. That seemed to be plenty of time for the official to lose the ability to read his (somehow it was always a male official) own writing, I guess. My grandmother's record showed her as a boy, under the first name "Adda." Her actual name was Sarah Ada.

Jane Coryell said...

I find that the son-in-law is the worst informant.

Alma said...

My maternal grandfather's death certificate says his father's name was James. This information was acquired from his youngest daughter, my aunt -- and she was wrong. Grandpa's father's name was Henry; James was his grandfather. Grandpa died in 1973 and I didn't find out the mistake until 1980. I wrote to the state vital statistics department for instructions on how to correct the problem. The response? The department couldn't make any changes more than 3 months after the date of death, because copies had already been sent out. ???!! Who's going to want copies, other than family historians, so long after the fact? Now Grandpa's descendants and collateral relatives will forever be steered wrong if they go by his death certificate and not by consulting my own records (which are posted online and readily available).

Anonymous said...

My first marriage certificate has the wrong day on it, which wasn’t discovered until much later.

Sue said...

My father and his twin sister were born May 23 1900. The 1900 census was taken in June 1900, they were listed as Claude and Maud. Their real names were Edgar Virgil and Edna Virgie. I guess someone changed their mind about the names before Baptism day.

Anonymous said...

On my mother's father's line, my great-grandfather's age on his marriage certificate and age on his death certificate are both wrong! I would think that he wanted his wife to think that he was younger than he was when they got married! On my mother's mother's side, my great-grandmother had the wrong age on her death certificate, but the day and month were correct. There was also a mistake was made on my great-grandfather's name! It took me years to find her, as having bought all the death certificates with her name, I didn't think any of them were her. Luckily with the 1939 Census, I realized that she was the right one! I would also like to point out that the volunteers who check the censuses (who I think are wonderful people) often make mistakes and it was only when a friend went onto a site and was able to check the original that we found out that it said grandson, not son! Because of knowing that, I had found my father's grandfather, and I was able to find him in a later census and trace the family back to the 1700's. I also had another problem, because my great-great grandmother wasn't yet married when she had him. So, if you are having difficulty, don't give up