One of the problems we face doing genealogical research is getting the facts straight. It's one thing to have names, but it's another thing to use primary and secondary sources to determine facts like birthdate, death date, and place of birth.
As you find your ancestors in the census, you'll discover that they may have birthdates that vary within a range as large as 10 years!
For example, my ancestor, Nelson Reddick is listed with the following different birth years:
1853 (1870 Census)
1846 (1880 Census)
1847 (1900 Census)
1850 (1910 Census)
1852 (1920 Census)
And, your ancestors may name two or three different states as their birth location. This is typical for early African-American records for many reasons:
1. Slaves often didn't know their birth date or where they were born, just the season in which they were born.
2. Many families didn't keep baptism and christening records.
3. Birth certificates weren't required in many states until the early 1900's or later, so folks may not have been sure of their exact birthdate.
4. Sometimes, the family wasn't there to give the census taker information, so he gathered that information from neighbors. That information could be very wrong.
So, given all these dates and no birth certificates or church records available, how does you determine the date your ancestor was born? Answering this question was important to me because the dates I had on the census didn't mesh well with the oral history passed down through my family. I was wondering if the children's names had been mixed up in the passing down of the story.
My thought was to assume that the sources with earlier dates are most reliable. I asked Lisa over at Genealogy Gems for help (via Facebook). Here's her answer:
Hi Aisha, I'm finally getting caught up after being at the Family History Expo in Utah, and want to get back to you on your question.
I'm with you on this question. I would give more weight to the sources that are closest to the actual event. And the fact that the source was likely the mother is even more compelling. While I have found that the oral history stories in my family have all had a grain of truth to them, I've certainly come across children getting mixed up. I think that is likely your case.
That being said, you may never get a final answer on this question. Until you find a rock solid source, you will always want to note the discrepancies. And I am not an expert on African-American research, so there may very well be other avenues to pursue that I'm not aware of.
Drop me a line when your podcast and blog are up and running. I'd like to follow your work.
All the best,
So, based on Lisa's advice, I will likely list Nelson's birthdate as 1853, with a footnote stating the discrepencies.
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