Sometimes I think my ancestors had psychic powers. I feel like they knew that someday I would be searching for them in the records they created, and that it would be fun for them to throw me a curve ball–or ten. Perhaps they thought it would be a good â€œcharacter building exercise.â€ To them, let me just say, â€œI am not amused.â€
Iâ€™ve been doing a little work on my Tobin family line and of the three family members for whom I have a good collection of census and other records, each of them routinely gave ages that conflicted with those in other records. For three of the five family members, birth years vary with a span of anywhere between seven and ten years. Interestingly, the mom of the family seems to age more than ten years with every census, while her sons, Peter and George, seem to age less with each enumeration.
So how do we reconcile these differences when we are trying to prove that the individual we found is one and the same as the person weâ€™ve located in other records? And how do we determine how old the individuals really were? Here are some things I have found helpful:
Create a Chart
First, I like to create a chart that lists each record I have on the person, the age he/she gave, and an estimated year of birth based on that age. Hereâ€™s a chart I created for Peter Tobin:
1841 Passenger Arrival, age 16, born 1825
1850 U.S. Federal Census, age 20 = born 1830
1860 U.S. Federal Census, age 28 = born 1832
1870 U.S. Federal Census, age 38 = born 1832
1880 U.S. Federal Census, age 50 = born 1830
1893 Death certificate, age 68 = born 1825
This gives me a clearer look at the range Iâ€™m dealing with.
Look at the Original Record
First of all, if youâ€™re using a date you found in an index, follow up with the original. One woman on my family tree whose age was listed as sixty-three in an index looks to be more like forty-three on the actual record. Of course she went on to give wildly varying ages in other records–presumably just to keep me on my toes.
Look at Motive
Was there perhaps a reason your ancestor lied? Did he lie to get into the military when he was too young or too old? Did she marry a much younger man and want to keep their ages more in line with convention? Or maybe they just didnâ€™t keep track that well, as I suspect is the case with many of my ancestors.
When Was the Record Created?
Typically Iâ€™ve found that the younger the person, the more likely their age is to be correct, or at least close. A child of three wouldnâ€™t likely be confused with one of ten, but a woman who is forty-three could easily be mistaken for a woman of fifty. And as years went by, at a time when exact age wasnâ€™t as important as it is today, itâ€™s easy to see where the years might blur; people forgot exactly how old someone was. Plus, we donâ€™t know who was answering the questions that the enumerator asked or often who the informant was on the death record. They may not have known exact dates.Â
Look at the Whole Family
When youâ€™re trying to determine whether you have your man in the census, it pays to know as much as you can about the entire family structure. While Dadâ€™s age may be off by five years, infant baby Joe who was born that year is likely to have the correct age. Compare the enumeration with other enumerations of the family wherever possible. Comparing the family structure can be very helpful when the age of one or two members is off.
One of the Tobin brothers moved from New York and is enumerated in Washington, D.C., in 1870. He of course followed the family tradition and in the four records Iâ€™ve located on him, his year of birth is listed as anywhere between 1818 and 1825. Using the ages of his children and his occupation as a hatter, Iâ€™ve been able to track him in the censuses between 1850 and 1870 as he moved from New York City to Brooklyn to Washington, D.C.
Look at the Big Picture
Since all the brothers were hatters, that fact helped me immensely with this family. Also consider places of birth, parentsâ€™ places of birth, ages of children, and addresses to help identify individuals. While each piece of information standing alone might not seem significant, each consistency adds more weight to the evidence you are compiling. Use that information to locate other more reliable sources that will prove your case.
We Are Not Alone
Varying ages, particularly in census records, are a common problem. Even Mary Lincoln lied about her age. History tells us that Mary was born 13 December 1818, yet in 1850, she listed her age as twenty-eight, off by three years.Â In 1860, her age is listed as thirty-five, off by six years. â€œHonest Abeâ€ pretty much lived up to his nickname with these two enumerations though. He was off by one year in 1850, but in the world of census, thatâ€™s peanuts. I wish more of my ancestors were like him!
Have you solve an age-related problem in your family? Share your story with us in the comments section below.
Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for ten years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.