Tips from the Pros: Estimating Dates of Birth Using Ages, from Michael John Neill

Ages given in any document can easily be incorrect and care must be taken when using an age to infer a year or date of birth for an ancestor. That said, it still is important to remember what an age on a given date means–the age as of that date. If Elizabeth’s age is listed as fifty years on 6 August 1832, then at the youngest, she had just turned fifty on that date. At the oldest, she was one day shy of her 51st birthday. So Elizabeth could have been born on 6 August 1782 (if she had just turned 50) or as early as 7 August 1781.

Of course, this potential range of birthdates makes the assumption that Elizabeth knew when she was born, that she actually reported the age herself and gave her true age, and that the age has been transcribed correctly from the record. Any birth date, or range of birth dates, calculated from an age should be clearly sourced and noted in your records. Keep in mind that many times such ages will potentially conflict with one another and often with sources providing primary information about the event.

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9 thoughts on “Tips from the Pros: Estimating Dates of Birth Using Ages, from Michael John Neill

  1. Here in the mountains of North Carolina I have found the quaint practice of stating what you will be on your next birthday. ie: When asked his age, he would answer, “I will be 51 on my next birthday.” If the person making the query noted the “51”, he would be a year off.

  2. In the case as presented, the easiest way to establish an approximate birth date is to enter it as “bef Aug 6, 1782”.
    This kind of date clearly would not be misleading and shows that it is subject to correction for anyone coming across the information.
    This would hold true especially for the ladies as they would never tell you they were older than they were.

  3. You need to be careful also when using tombstone inscriptions to estimate birth years. Older markers will often record, “. . .in the 57th year of his age.” This means he was 56.

  4. I was checking the age of a sister of my ancestor by following the census reports. She lived in Virginia so I had to start with 1810. That year and all the following indicated that she was born between 1780 and 1790. In 1850 she was 68 and in 1860 she was 82. I decided that she told the census taker she had been born in 82 and he put that down as her age. He also said she was decrepit.

  5. Doug Cooley writes:>>”You need to be careful also when using tombstones to estimate birth years. Older markers will often record, “…in the 57th year of his age.” This means he was 56.”

  6. My last message left more than half the message out. Suggestions, web master?

    Tom Boyce

  7. Remember that in censuses the age is supposed to be reported as of the “census date,” not the day the enumerator came by. This rule was sometimes followed, but not always. And some people would give an answer that was a year too old if their birthday was coming up soon.

  8. It breaks my heart that I don’t know my paternal grandmother’s birth date. Neither her 1863 christening record nor either of her death certificates (both NY State and Town) give it. Dad was 7 when she died, so might have known it – but never asked him before he died.
    However, thanks to the NY 1865 census, taken June 11, I’ve come close. This gives her age as 3 and 3/12, thus she was b between 1 Mar and 30 April, 1862, if my arithmetic or the enumerator are correct.

  9. I have had (am still having) trouble with an ancestor of my husband. On most of the English census records she is stated as being of an age to have been born around 1815ish. Her age according to her marriage cert indicates she was born 1815. Her age on her death cert gives her age as 77 which indicated she was born around 1808. Also she was born in Scotland. So she is a very very elusive ancestor (ancestress??) Most frustrating 😀

    So I don’t think I will ever find her baptism/birth record nor her parents. Her father’s name is on her marriage certificate, as well has his occupation but that has been no help at all!!

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