Tips from the Pros: Date Estimates: More Than a Good Guess, from Sherry Irvine, CG, FSA (Scot)

Most online database websites provide a field for selecting the date range of a search, or the age range of an individual in a particular record. An age range is, in fact, a date range because you are estimating the period of years in which a birth took place. Regardless of the nature of the date estimate or the breadth of years you choose to search, careful analysis should go into the choice.

When searching for an individual take into account what date information you have and where it came from. Can it be considered accurate? What did a record state? Some individuals regularly lied about age, not necessarily with any consistency as to the error. Some records did not require an accurate age, perhaps just an indication the individual was over the age of twenty-one.

A successful search could also depend upon the date when the record was made. This is true of wills. The date of probate is more significant and may have been years after the date of death.

If you choose the Advanced Search at Ancestry, or when a search form includes the date range option, you select a year and then select a number of years either side of it:

+/- 0 (meaning exact),
+/- 1 (a three-year span),
+/- 2 (a five-year span),
+/- 5 (an eleven-year span).
+/- 10 (a twenty-one-year span), and
+/- 20 years (a forty-one-year span).

Keep in mind that the year you are estimating from may not be the best middle year for the plus and minus range for the search tool. Sometimes I estimate a birth as after a certain date (e.g., after 1847). In this case, I would not set 1847 as the middle year, but choose 1851, plus or minus five to cover the years 1846 to 1856. Some websites ask for a start year and an end year to set your search, which saves some mental arithmetic.

Keep some other factors in mind as you set date ranges. Is the name common or rare? Setting a date range is one way to reduce the number of results, but keep track of what you do in case you must work step-by-step–perhaps ten years at a time–through a long period. Also, when searching a single record, make sure you know its starting date. For example, with civil birth records in England and Wales, the start date is 1 July 1837, and your range of years should include dates that fall after that.

Finally, your estimate may sometimes depend upon historical knowledge. The year a family migrated to North America is a good example. Check into the history of the country of origin, and the particular place. Discovering a year of political upheaval or some years of great hardship could help focus a search.

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One thought on “Tips from the Pros: Date Estimates: More Than a Good Guess, from Sherry Irvine, CG, FSA (Scot)

  1. I have discovered when searching my female ancestors that the birth dates fluctuate frequently, sometimes, wildly. Even one grandmother’s death certificate had what I believe to be the wrong year, altho consistent with the last 2 census returns she was located in. This just goes to show that a lady never tells her age. She was born in 1839 in Brown County, Ohio to Jacob and Susan Haines, but discovered the Fountain of Youth in 1900, having aged only 8 years since 1880. Alas, my 2nd great grandmother, Louisa Jane Haines Jones took that secret to her grave with her.

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