When doing genealogy, how do you deal with differing facts?
When trying to stay factual, it can be difficult when records give varying information. For instance, the census results can even differ! Birth certificates and those facts can differ from other official records. I didn't expect things to be that way.
So how do you deal with such discrepancies, while trying to only go with the facts? If you have any thoughts or suggestions, they would be most welcome!
When census records and birth certificates differ, go with the birth certificate. Census takers were not always the most accurate fact finders, and then too, people often lied about their ages when asked. Some times, comparing ages on several census records for various years can pinpoint a correct age. Collect all of the data, including dates on tombstones, and the obituaries, and go with the date that is the most prevalent.
Look at the source and ask is it a primary source, that is something created at the time it happened. Usually the primary source should be preferred. However one has to bear in mind that people don't always tell the truth when, say registering a birth or getting married!
If we are talking about the UK then as ij gonya says census returns aren't always accurate. They are not a primary source (apart from the returns we see from 1911.) The enumerator extracted information off the returns and entered them into his summary book which is what we see, lots of room for error (apart from institutions, but they had their own problems regarding accuracy!).
Lots of room for error when people were getting married or registering a death given that there was a high rate of illiteracy and much of the information was given orally to the Registrar or clergymen and there was not always consistency as to how names were spelt
It isn't always a case of deciding that the most records giving a certain piece of information must be right as quite a few people went to some lengths to hide the true facts about themselves.
In short you need to weigh up all the evidence and decide why perhaps a particular entry goes against the general flow.
I list all of the facts in my family tree software, even if they do not agree with each other. You just never know when the oddball fact gives you a clue to something else, or may be the correct one. Even if someone's birth certificate gives a particular age of an ancestor, if she always told everyone she was ten years younger, then that is what everyone will believe. That is an interesting fact that tells you about her.
I think all the records together give you a more accurate story, just just about the particular person, but about the people around her. If she had a child when she was 16, her lie about being ten years younger is not going to stand the facts about human development.
As to which one to believe, I believe records that are closest to the event, and the ones that are completed by people who are more likely to know. A death certificate is likely to be accurate for a death date but not as accurate for the birth date. Primary records trump secondary records most of the time.
I never accept one instance of "fact" as "carved in stone". (Tombstones LIE, btw.) I once followed the ancestor of a friend through six censuses and the guy never gave the same (appropriate) age in any of them. Finally got his true birth year from his military records.
One of my grandkids' relatives knocked four years off her age on her passport app, but that was before birth certs were required to get one. I knew she'd lied about her age because not only did I have a pic of her as a toddler that included other toddlers whose ages I could verify, but I looked up the announcement of her birth on a microfilm of the local newspaper!
Family tradition stated one of my grandfathers died on his 59th birthday, which if true made him born in 1871. He really DID die on his birthday, but I found him as an 8-month-old in the 1870 census, meaning he died on his 61st, not his 59th. I don't put much stock in ages on censuses, but they won't list someone not yet born!
I agree with lj gonja - but another point is always put more weight into a record an ancestor has written themselves if available. If not, the next best thing is one 'witnessed' by the ancestor (such as birth and marriage certificates). In regards to death certificates check to see who supplied the information - a parent, sibling or spouse of the deceased is usually most accurate with children and grandchildren being a bit less accurate and nurses, neighbours etc. being quite inaccurate! This isn't always the case, but it is good to keep in mind.
Another point is that census records have been written by the member of the household, then transcribed by a enumerator then transcribed again in online indexes. Make sure you look at the closest transcription to the source (which is the image of the record itself). The 1911 UK census record is the one most likely to be accurate as the original forms filled out by the ancestors exist and can be viewed online.
Remember to take into account illiteracy as well!
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