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August 5, 2010

Set in Stone?

Two years ago I wrote a blog post called A GRAVE MISTAKE  It was about how you can't always be positive that what is written on a tombstone is correct. A recent email on a mailing list brought this subject back to mind.

A subscriber was trying to find his ancestor's death certificate. He had dates of death and birth from the tombstone. But he could not find the death certificate and his conclusion was that it had not been registered.

But wait! Did the subscriber allow any leeway in death dates? Nope. He trusted the gravestone inscription and didn't bother to search a few years either side.

It always surprises me that if a document is not found with a preliminary search, researchers often give up. We really need to remember that information on most records, for example on a death certificate, on a census, on a marriage record, a church baptismal record, an obituary and yes - a tombstone - is only as good and as accurate as the knowledge of the person providing the information!

If the informant doesn't know the correct age, or place of birth, or only knows a nickname but not the name given at birth, then that information will be wrong or not recorded. Gravestones are almost always placed by family, and often well after the actual death. Memories can be faulty and incorrect information can be recorded for posterity.

Alexander McGinnis (my great grandfather) was born in 1849. I have his baptism record giving his actual date of birth. But his daughter Mary erected his tombstone and she thought he was born in 1844. So that date went on the stone. It's wrong. If I had not allowed several years on either side of that tombstone year, I'd not have found his baptism.

Mary Elizabeth Peer (my great grandmother) was the daughter of Isaac Vollick and Lydia Jamieson. That is proven. Her husband was Stephen Peer. But her death certificate states that her parents were Stephen & Mary Vollick. How did this happen?

When she died her 17 year old son Edgar gave the information and I speculate when asked "Mother's name?" by the registrar, he said "Mary" (his mother's name). When asked "Father's name?" he said "Stephen" (his father's name). When asked "maiden name?" he gave the correct maiden name of his mother - Vollick. And thus the fictitious and entirely incorrect couple called Stephen and Mary Vollick were created and worse yet, listed for posterity as the parents of Mary Vollick!

And that is how mistakes happen. So be creative. Think outside the box. Don't believe that something, once written, is set in stone. It may very well be wrong.


FranE said...

Good points. I have been leary, but for some I am just grateful to find them. I find the obits are sometimes more accurate or better pointers to immediate family.
Thanks for sharing on twitter, I retweeted to my beginning friends.

Janice said...

So true.... I remember as a teenage genealogist being a little unhappy with my father when he supplied information for his father's obit and gave his birth 10 years off so the obit is wrong. I didn't realize how grief also skews your thinking. Then, years later, I was put in the same situation and asked to recall my grandmother's birth place on the spur of the moment and incorrectly put her in the wrong place on her death certificate.