Ancestors Who Lied About Their Age, by Juliana Smith

census taker.bmpSometimes 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 “character building exercise.” To them, let me just say, “I am not amused.”

I’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 we’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. Here’s a chart I created for Peter Tobin:

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 I’m dealing with.

Look at the Original Record
First of all, if you’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 didn’t keep track that well, as I suspect is the case with many of my ancestors.

When Was the Record Created?
Typically I’ve found that the younger the person, the more likely their age is to be correct, or at least close. A child of three wouldn’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 wasn’t as important as it is today, it’s easy to see where the years might blur; people forgot exactly how old someone was. Plus, we don’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. 

Look at the Whole Family
When you’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 Dad’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 I’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, I’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, parents’ 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.  In 1860, her age is listed as thirty-five, off by six years. “Honest Abe” 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, that’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.

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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, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.


59 thoughts on “Ancestors Who Lied About Their Age, by Juliana Smith

  1. This article immediately brought to mind my great-grandmother, Emma. My great grandfather was about ten years younger than Emma. As their married life continued, it seemed that her age seemed to get closer to his. In 1910 – she reported herself to the Census as 5 years younger; in 1920 it was only 2 years; but it jumped to 10 in 1930!. I’m realiy interested in seeing what the 1940 Census will bring. I have found, however, that she was accurate when reporting her age on her children’s birth certificates.

  2. It was my Grandfather’s sister. It’s is important to me because two families ended up together. My great Aunt Mary Toy , who was born in 1866 according to the 1870 Census eventually married my Great Uncle John Stoltz my gandmother’s brother and he was born in 1873. Aunt Mame, as she was called went from 1866 to 1874 between 1870 and 1900. My grandfather, Mame’s younger brother, married John’s younger sister, Elizabeth and Mame was the only one to lie She also had another earlier marriage (family secret time) and had a older child who did not live with her and her younger husband. She really went over the brink and since she died before Social Security her real age has never been exposed. Where as an Aunt an uncle who gave wrong ages in 1930 with him being a year older than my AUnt. This was corrwcted by the Social Security death index showing that my Aunt was 17 when they were married and her husband was a mere 16. The way I determine the truth with my elder relatives ie: great grandmother who changed her age every census was through checking the children who were of consistant ages and figured out she was born in 1844.

  3. My great grandmother,Frances Rozina Reynolds Older, falsifed her age on the 1870 to 1930 Federal Census. The age differences were not verified until this summer when her original marriage license was found in Mankato, Minnesota. Her death notice from Kansas listed her age at death at 99 years, 11 months. Her marriage licence stated she was 16 at the age of marriage and needed her guardian to sign for her. She was married in 1872 and really born in 1856 not 1849 as she had listed on documents and passed down in her biographies. Now one puzzle about her life has been proven; now there are many, many more.
    Comment by Carolyn Older Salk

  4. I think that most of the age errors are caused because our ancestors didn’t know how to add or subtract. Yes, they could figure out the baby was 3, but they couldn’t calculate their own age at 37. It’s the lack of education, especially for the women. I can’t tell you how often I’ve gotten out the calulator to figure out an ancestor’s age or birth year!

  5. This article really rang a bell with my research. I was having the same problem. I called it the “Wandering Birthday.” My Great grandfather, Hugh McCabe, seemed to have several different birthdays. Several years ago I made such a chart as you explained. I’m relieved to know that my efforts were not too far out of bounds of good research. The following is my chart:

    CensusTownship AgeApparent Year born Occupation
    1850 Vinegar Hill 30 1820 Not given
    1850 New Diggings Abt 27 1822 Smelter
    1860 Benton 32 1828 Farmer
    1870 Benton 42 1828 Farmer
    1880 Benton 54 1826 Farmer
    1890 Willow Springs (Land records)– Farmer
    1900 Benton 70 1830 None given

    Mike Jozefowicz

  6. I have read that many people were not at home when the census taker came, and the information was collected from neighbors, this would explain the age discrepancies.

  7. In my own experience things like having a lot of children can be the cause of forgetting when someone was born.
    My mother had seven children and for some unknown reason she forgot what days the girls were born on! I was seventeen when I found out that my birthday was on April 24 and not on the 23d as we’d been celebrating it on.

  8. I’ve recently experienced a couple of problems with finding records with correct surnames. I knew the surname that current descendants are familiar with – Bechtel. I found four records for this person with the following spellings on the original handwritten records: Bechtel, Bochtol, Bachtel, Bichtel. The birth dates, location and other family member names were the clues that led me to conclude they were for the same person. In this same family there were three generations of males with the given name of John, no middle names.

    Put that together with transcription errors and it can be maddening. For example, when I first began researching on ancestry, I was looking for a family with the surname Sims and I never had any luck. I have since learned not just to look at the first few possible matches but to go far down the list. I finally found my family with the surname transcribed as Diana, but the given names were familiar and the township and county were correct.

  9. Judging by the comments already posted, we can see that there were quite a few explanations for ages varying from census to census.
    Nancy Ross made a very good point when she commented that many of our ancestors could not subtract. That reminded me that many also could not read and write, therefore could not keep a written record of family births, deaths and marriages. Although some undoubtedly did lie about their age, I suspect that most whose ages vary with time and with the type of record were not lying, but simply didn’t know when they were born.

  10. My mother lied deliberately about when she was born. She said, and always told everyone, including the drivers’ license branch that she was born in 1911. Her death certificate showed 1911 as did her SS info. However, when I found her family when I was 19, my grandmother told me that she was born in 1910. I had never met any of her family until that time. I didn’t give it much thought until after my mother’s death, as she never knew I found her family. Several years ago, I contacted the chuch she had grown up in in Chicago after seeing the church records in Salt Lake City. Turns out, my mother was born in 1910…I have a copy of her baptismal certificate sent to me by the Polish Catholic Church. All baptisms were listed by date..and there was no way that could have been changed. She was 14 months younger than her oldest brother who was born in 1909. I even know who her godparents were, and also found out other family names through my grandparents’ marriage certificate and my mother’s baptismal certificate.

    I also had several other family members constantly change birthdates; to this day, I have no idea why…they were all well educated, well traveled. My paternal grandmother didn’t want people to know she was a year older than her husband!

  11. I have found that it seems to be the Census takers that usually round up a year, sometimes two. I know most of the DOBs for a great many of my relatives and in later years – using the 1900 Federal Census is helpful as well as it gives month and year and have found them to be pretty accurate. Another thing I have encountered is as my relatives age they seem to forget or care about exact date – at least that is my assumption so… knowing my relatives now and their POV on age.. my guess is if they were 50+ they just threw soemthing out there that sounded close enough -they had work to get done ;).

  12. Don’t discount folks wanting to hide stuff when you’re looking. I’ve run into several families who lied about their firstborn’s age because they knew it was WAY too close to the amount in the “Years Married” column.

    If ya know what I mean. And I think ya do….. 😉

  13. One of my grandfathers ran away from his orphanage in Ill. at 16 or 17 to New Haven, Conn, where he join the Navy & lied about his birth place & age by 2 yrs. It is now on his on line Death Certificate information and I’m not sure if I can find an actual birth certificate for him or not nor how to correct the false information.

  14. I found a post-birth certificate for my grandmother. It was attested to by her brother. The year of filing was 1945 and my grandmother claimed to be born 12 January 1900.

    Trying to find my grandmother in the 1900 census was just impossible. I found her father, stepmother and sisters – no Callie. The 1910 census was filled with spelling errors but the last name was sort of correct. There she was listed as DALLIE age 9. So, grandmother was born in 1901. It is lucky for me I knew her family and relatives listed in both census for verification. The whole town was filled with kiss’in cousins.

  15. My g-grandfather and g-grandmother were both listed as the same age on my grandfather’s birth record. However, my g-grandfather was ten years younger. He only revealed his actual age in the 1900 census. I tend to believe that their age difference would have been frowned upon.

  16. Ah, yes… grandmother started using 1883 for her year of birth when she met my grandfather, who was born in 1885. For the longest time I couldn’t find her on any records, until a cousin, who wasn’t looking at the birth date of 1883, found her christening in 1875! She just didn’t want anyone to know she was ten year older than my grandfather, and she went to her grave with the wrong date.
    Then there was my mother….supposedly born in 1913, BUT, the story tied to her birth was that she was born in the middle of the “Great Typhoon” in Regina, Saskatchewan. I’m sure that my grandparents never thought there would be a way to research and see that the typhoon happened in 1912, not 1913. This tied to the fact that I have not yet found a marriage certificate for my grandparents tells me they shuffled around a whole lot of truths.
    I do remember hearing a story about my grandfather changing the dates of his birth so he could enlist in the military in WWII, but haven’t found that data, yet.
    Above all else…..I still hear my mother asking “what would the neighbors think?”…..and wonder what would she think, if she knew the truth about her own parents?

  17. I try always to record the name of the census-taker and the precise date of the census. In addition to all the other good explanations and examples that this issue generated is the probability ha he census-maker did not speak well the language of the respondent.

  18. This sounds so much like my great grandfather. He was listed as having been born in several different years – and different states! (I had proof all the listings were him.) It was very frustrating until I found out that he also was involved in the Underground Railway, smuggling slaves. After learning that, I realized he probably was afraid to tell anyone the truth, that they might come after him!
    Just a note: My brother died in another state with his third wife. She listed his birthplace wrong – only because she didn’t know! (I’d like to change it, but not sure how)

  19. Oh yes!! It was my pleasure to know a lady who had immigrated from Greece as a young woman. When I knew her, she was still working in a factory, and after her death her granddaughters found that she had fibbed about her age so that she could work more years. We finally decided she was about 76 when she turned 65 and retired! She was the most wonderful neighbor!!
    My other tip — which I’m sure you all know — is to exchange F and V as first letters in surnames. When in doubt with either of those, try a swap!


  20. My Irish grandfather’s birth certificate is dated 5 days after his baptism was recorded in the local church register. The church record notes his birth occured the day before baptism. The family always celebrated the earlier date,the discrepancy was a mystery for years.Then by chance I compared the dates of the birth and its registration and found the answer.

    Births had to be reported to the civil authorities within 60 days and there were stiff fines for non compliance. Most often the mothers were the informants and had to recover from the birth then go to the Registrar’s office often on foot and with additional children in tow. If they were late,sympathetic clerks would move the “Birth date” forward so as to bring it within 60 days of the registration date and avoid imposing fines. Sure enough,my Great grandmother was 6 days late in going to register my Grandad. The birth was recorded as six days later than it really happened to make the registration timely!

  21. My husbands Grandmother went through life stating she was born between 1885 and 1886. I thought it was funny when I found her with her parents and siblings as a 1 year old on the 1880 census. I guess woman really wanted to be younger then and without the ID of now-a-days they could be! It’s strange how some families I find the information back then perfect and others are all over the place in both names and ages.

  22. Oh, yes, the bouncing birth years…I think we’ve all run into this!

    One other possible situation could be what I finally found in my maternal great-grandparents children after a lot of very frustrating research. They went through three sons with the same first name over a 12 year period before one lived to maturity.

    What a relief it was to find there were three different babies named August!

  23. This is obvious, but to make sure: this is a great example of why you can’t rely on any single document completely. My greatest fear is that I’ve spent all this time tracking people, and then it turns out they just lied for some reason. Think about the possibility that your g-grandmother reported the wrong father on a birth certificate, that could ruin all the work that’s been done.

    The more information we have, the better. Genealogy is a fuzzy science because if we rely on people writing things down, there is always room for error.

  24. for the Tobin’s, the reason for differing ages may have to do with the occupation not in the article: hatter. Hatter’s used mercury and mercury has neuro-toxic effects….

    In addition to all the other reasons noted, the effect of declining brain function should be included

  25. Hi Juliana….as always your articles are interesting and educational; thanks! However, I’d like to take your Tobin example a step further and hopefully more accurately useful.

    Since the official census date was usually in mid-year, an age accurately listed would have indicated, for instance in 1850, a birthday between 2 Jun 1849 and 1 Jun 1850, assuming the census taker utilized the official census date of 1 Jun 1850.

    I have already found, though, 1850 censuses which were enumerated as late as December 1850. IF the census taker simply asked “How old are you?” on 9 Dec 1850, it’s also possible the person’s birthday could actually have been between 10 Dec 1849 and 9 Dec 1850.

    >Peter Tobin
    >1850 U.S. Federal Census, age 20 = born 1830
    So, for your Peter Tobin, a chart might more clearly state:
    1850 Census: age 20 = possibly born between 2 Jun 1849 and 1 Jun 1850 -AND/OR- between (as in my above example) 10 Dec 1849 and 9 Dec 1850.

    >1841 Passenger Arrival, age 16, born 1825
    Likewise, a passenger, (accurately!?) aged 16, for instance arriving 17 Feb 1841 would more likely indicate a birth possibly between 18 Feb 1824 and 17 Feb 1825 than a blanket 1825.

    Taking into account the date of the record, not just the year, could possibly be the key to finding a birth record in a different year than expected!

    Cari Thomas

  26. I had fun following my gr-grandmother’s sister — her baptismal record was found and she was born in 1860 & census in 1870 & 80 showed correct age; however, every time she married after the first husband, she was older than the husband and her age changed. She was married 3 times and was as much as 8 years older than one of the men. When she died, her death certificate shows her age as 85 (info given by a friend — family all dead) and her actual age was 90. We had a good laugh about it, but now reading all the comments, this must have been common among women in those days.

  27. This article really rang a bell with me. My great grandmother was a twin. Her husband died when my grandmother was only 6 months old so the twins moved in with each other. The sis-“Stir”, as she came to be called, was a teacher in Baltimore. My great grandmother was probably at home with her daughter and still in mourning when the census taker came by in 1900. She told that her sister was 2 years OLDER than herself. This, I have discovered only recently, but it goes along with the family stories of the two prankster sisters that they were.

  28. I think ages can be the result of sloppy census taking. I found the 1910 Census for my grandfather showed his mother and his older sister as living in his home though each had died several years before. Dates of death were verified by their tombstones. I have found that these dates of death are accurate even though dates of birth may not be.

  29. My paternal great uncle Louis seemed to have lost ten years between the 1910 census and the 1920 census. His son tole me that it was not because he remarried to a younger woman (my theory) but because of insurance. It seems that the premium was age-based and the younger he claimed to be when he took out the policy the cheaper the premiums would be!
    I also found several differences of about a year in the ages of some of my mother’s ancestors. She told me that it was to confuse the “angel of death.”

  30. My Favorite was my Aunt Isabel who was a “Divorcee” in the 1920’s. My Uncle was her 2nd husband and was head of the Havana Cuba Electric company. She travelled between New York and Havana every couple of months and Ancestry Immigration records show her miraculously getting Younger each trip.

  31. My great grandfather continues to provide me with headaches from beating my head against the brick wall he built for me. In 1900 he is enumerated in Spokane, Washington as Canadian born and an “alien”. He worked for the railroads and in the early part of the century, the railroads often changed ownership. Ggrandfather found himself looking for work and probably realized quickly that if he passed himself off as an American citizen, and a somewhat younger man than he was, it would be easier to find employment. Why bother with naturalization when you can just cook up a good story? By 1910, he was enumerated as having a birthplace of Rhode Island. In 1920, Portland, Maine. He always picked places three thousand miles from where he lived because he was smart enough to know they wouldn’t bother to check. He even lied on his application to The Masons, probably because he was sponsored by someone who worked with him. Thanks ggrandfather! I’ve finally figured out when you were born, but where??? Who knows?

  32. My husband’s grandmother always stated that her birthyear was 1899. She was actually born in 1900, but apparently felt that there was a superstition associated with having been born at the turn of the century.

  33. Great article and, obviously, from the large amount of responses above, something that many of us researchers have had to deal with in our own families. As the author so points out, the best way to prove the actual age of the person is by going to the original birth record itself. That will really nail down the age of the person, regardless of how many age contradictions may have followed in other sources. In my case, however, I’ve encountered something of a complicated situation which has almost turned into the obsession of a lifetime!

    My paternal grandmother was supposedly 99 when she died in 1980. Even though she wasn’t born in this country–she was born in Hungary–we had no reason to doubt her when she claimed that, when her family arrived in New York in 1881, she was a newborn infant. But later then, in the early 90’s, when I was searching her passenger manifest for exact town location of departure in Hungary, I stumbled upon something totally unexpected: she was NOT an infant as she had claimed, but four years old in 1881. Thus, she was 103 when she died, four years older than the 99 which we had believed all along(!) I’ve since hired four different researchers to track down her original birth record in Hungary but, as of now, it still hasn’t been located. Currently, though, another researcher in Romania is on the case. Hopefully he will be able find my grandmother’s birth at long last, but the chances are somewhat slim at this late juncture.

    Why did she reduce her age, and continue forward with the false younger age until her death? Well, from some of the responses above, people had varying reasons for camouflaging their ages. Response # 14 (directly above, here), shows how one woman’s grandmother made herself eight years younger to hide the embarrassing fact that she was really 10 years older than her husband, and not two years older as she had it officially recorded.

    The theory I have about my own grandmother is that, when she married my grandfather back in 1903, any woman over 25 years old was considered an “old maid”, and therefore undesirable as a spouse. In reality, she was at that time circa 26 years old–which was over the age limit. So either she, or a matchmaker, suddenly chopped four years off of her age, making her only 22. Oh, well, women lying about their ages, what else is new?!

  34. I searched on my Father and his relatives for several years now. He died about 10 months after my birth (the last of 7 children) in 1934. In the 1900 census he age was indicated as 16 years of age. His marriage certificate in 1922 indicated his age as 28. In between, my grand-parents were divorced and in 1901 the Circuit Court (request for guardianship for his sister) indicated that he was 14, but the request of his sister indicated that he was 16. For some unknown reason, his actual date of birth on his tombstone says he was born on 27 April 1892. Our family could never get Mother to talk about the “Watson” family and ended up taking all her knowledge to her grave with him. Even though I believe he was actually born in 1894, we still have to live with the date on the tombstone.

  35. My husband and I went to the Czech Republic and found the Baptismal records of his great aunts and uncle and filmed them. Upon returning to the US I looked up the aunts in the census records and one aunt who remained single and actually worked in Washington DC in the 1920 for the government must have felt it necessary to lie about her age in each census and I am sure she also did on her work records. As a single woman I am sure she was insecure about her age in a male dominated work world. What must have worked for her was pretty amusing to me as i worked on his family history. I never knew her but as a woman who worked also in a male dominated industry I can relate.
    Carol Stryhal

  36. My wife was a census taker in 1960. She was told to guess if persons would not reveal their age.

  37. My grandfather always said he was born 23 Feb 1892 in Orange, NJ. When I sent to NJ for a copy of his birth certificate they couldn’t find a record. While looking for records on his siblings I found his birth registered as 26 Jan 1892. It was registered in Boston, MA as an “out of town birth”. His youngest brothers birth was registered twice, 13 Nov 1898 & 13 Nov 1899. All his records used the 1898 date.

  38. I will apologize ahead of time: I just can’t resist.

    If the family were all hatters, and that meant using mercury in the making, you have to consider that there were “mad” hatters involved in the age mistakes.

  39. My Grandmother, Fridolena Haban came to the US through Ellis Island in 1911. She was born in 1895 and we know she was 3 weeks shy of 16 when she traveled to the US with her sister. On the ship manifest her age is listed as 19. We speculate she lied because she was afraid she would not be allowed to travel without her parents if she was underage.

  40. “we still have to live with the date on the tombstone.” This is a quote from Comment by Darrell Watson above.
    Please be aware that all dates on the tombstone may not be correct. My grandmother died 28 Nov 1974. Her husband died first and his dates were correct on the shared tombstone. Her name and birth date were already on the tombstone when she died. When the person who was supposed to write the death date on the tombstone went out to put the correct date on it he was surprised to find it was already filled in with an
    April date on it. The family tried to have it corrected but the stone cutters said it couldn’t be done. They said it didn’t matter anyway since the family knew she died in November and not in April. They did not take in to consideration all of the genealogists of the future who would take pictures of the tombstone with the wrong date on it.

  41. What caught me attention to the age variations was my maternal great-grandparents, who married when my g-grandmother was 19, and had my grandmother 2 years later, when she was still 19. Since I have her birth, marriage & death certificates, I realized she was barely 17 when they married. Then I realized that there may be some problems with other family members. Which would explain why I couldn’t find them beyond a certain time-frame. Then I made a chart for a couple of my ancestors, just to verify what I found. And much to my surprise and delight, I found some amazing differences in ages, especially the men. I was able to, in some instances, trace them back in time. It’s the little things I have found that has made the big differences in my time travels.

  42. In the 1930 census, all of the ages are incorrect for my father’s family. My grandfather was retired by then, and the enumerator was unlucky enough to draw him to answer the questions. He admitted to “fibbing” about information as he thought the government too intrusive.

  43. This is just a thought. I’m an OLD researcher from the old way, searching by books, etc. Before I started I read all the books in the libray on research.

    Important feature we forget. They set the year back in the 60’s or 70’s trying to get our monthly seasons back on it’s line. That was when they added leap year which is suppose to correct the problem but now serious thoughts have been that it may have to do the same thing otherwise, July we will be having snow!!!

    So when you see these age differents, then that may be the reason. Some were as much as 23 months off younger due to the time they did this, while others were 23 months older.

    Also another thing, study the old way of writing and you will find that their manner of writing was so easy to misspell the name due to the way they scriped the name.

    Just a thought

  44. My wife was born in Colombia South America. She was one of a large family. Birth registration was not compulsory until nearly all of her siblings had been born. Her mother simply went down and registered all of her children with the same birth date. Her mother has lomg passed away and the children are still trying to sort out who was born when and perhaps will never know for sure.

  45. My mother’s aunt lied about her age and name after her second marriage which made it extremely hard to locate her. She was born Bidelia, went by the nickname Bee, but after her second marriage called herself Beatrice. She also shaved about five years off her age to be closer to her husband’s age.

    I knew she had lived in Tucson at the end of her life and her husband was a Stephens/Stevens. So I tried looking for him under both names. I just kept coming back to a Tom and Beatrice in all my searches. So I contacted the librarian at Tucson and asked if they would do a phone book search in the mid 1930s for a Bidelia Stephens/Stevens. She also came back with the Tom & Beatrice couple. So, the librarian gave me the website for the death certificates in Arizona and I paid for a copy of this Beatrice and sure enough, it was my great aunt. For whatever reason, she had decided to change not only her age, but her name! At least I found her finally!!

    Also, my own dad had his birth registered by the widwife as being a female with an unrecognizable female name on the certificate. My dad discovered this when he was in his 50s and he needed a copy of his birth certificate.

  46. Your articles are always very inspiring and helpful to me. I hope you continue to write them for many years to come. Thanks you for new insights and hints that I really appreciate.

  47. My maternal grandmother never revealed her age to her children. She was born and raised in a traditional Victorian-era family in South Carolina at a time when ladies did not reveal their age. It was nobody’s business, except, perhaps, the family doctor.

    However, here is what I found on her:

    1880 census: age 6 years
    1900 census: age 25 years, birthday May 1875
    1910 census: age 25 years
    1920 census: age 41 years
    1930 census: age 51 years
    death certificate: born 6 Dec 1879

    The birth date on the death certificate was given by my aunt. I had been told that her birthday was on December 6th. In a letter written by my great-grandfather to his father-in-law in February 1874, he mentions “the baby”, but not by name. She was the youngest child of seven in the family.

    My mother told me that my grandmother was six years old at the time of her father’s death. He died in March 1879. Since people are not very likely to lie about the age of a young child to the census taker. I conclude that the age on the 1880 census is the closest to being accurate. Therefore, my grandmother was probably born on 6 December 1873.

  48. Some time ago I read an article in the Ancestry News letter explaining why there was so many discrepancies in the census. Particularly prior to 1920. Often when the census taker came around the family head and other adults were working either in the field or factory. The person questioned may have been a child or servant. Often young people left home to “work” for a family in neighboring communities. Whoever it was that gave the answers for the census may not have had accurate information about age and place of birth. So don’t blame you ancestors. It may have been inaccurate information given by some one else.

  49. It looks like we have covered the bases. We seem to be caught between calculated deception, memory, and data collection methods. I have one 19th century relative who was enumerated twice in two weeks in near but different locations with marked differences in the recorded information. That and several other examples have raised these considerations in my mind: (1) How were the census-takers trained and how did they ask their questions? Asking how old you are now and how old were you last year (i.e., before the census year) may produce quite different results? (2) The same person did not necessarily answer the questions in each census. I’ve seen circumstantial evidence suggesting that when the wife apparently provided the census information, she provided more complete names and accurate ages than when her husband and/or someone else provided the information. I reached this conclusion based on the accurate of her report age (I assume she would know her age better than her husband or children). (3) Do we error by assuming that ages, and sometimes even formal names, were as important to ancestors as they are to us? How do we account for the many unnamed children in census and birth records during their first year? Some local accounts indicate that life wasn’t always regarded as precious nor were the births of children regarded as blessed or eagerly anticipated occasions. Life was often brutal and unpleasant for some people. The greeting card industry didn’t develop until the latter quarter of the 19th century. Documentation for government benefits, as we now understand them, wasn’t normally necessary in the 19th century unless one was infrequently applying for a pension. Thus the concept of a “birthday,” to say nothing of a birthday cake and present, strikes me as a rather late-arriving practice. For most people in the 19th century and earlier I suspect the notion of age and/or birthdate was not too common. For a country that was largely rural we are lucky that memories worked as well as they did, albeit like a flawed Word file.

  50. One of the first items I learned when I started to do my family genealogy was to check the census.

    In1900, I found the family including my grandparents and 8 of their children. My grandmother was listed as 40 years old.
    I then remembered that my father was the last one and only one born in the US in 1897 and I knew he was one of 9 children. (Thanks to JRI-Poland, I now have 4 additional sibling making a total of 13!)

    His married sister was not living with the family in 1900, so I checked her family on the census and got her families ages.

    When I entered her age as 31 in my FTM program, the program responded “if Minnie was 31 in 1900, she would have been born when her mother was 9 years old!!”

    I subsequently learned that grandma was 46 when my father was born in 1897, and that she was really born in 1851. No two documents that I have of hers have the same age,

  51. Concerning disappearing ancestors, I, indeed, have experienced this phenomenom. I had a great grandfather whose wife (a great grandmother) who was nowhere to be found. However, after searching much further than the same cemetary, same county and even the same state (Indiana) she turned up in a cemetary in northern Arkansas near a town so small that it seldom apprears on the state map. Likewise, following a fire at the county courthouse in St. Louis Mo, I had all but given up on finding any death certificates or other information about another pair of my great grandparents. Later, I decided to try another source, the Missouir State Archives, and “presto” before long I had copies of their death certificates which also provided information on their birthplaces and names of their fathers.

  52. It’s understandable that “little white lies” are involved in stating one’s age, such as minimum age for traveling alone, or entry into the military. Plus or minus one year in the census is a good rule to follow unless you carefully look at the census date vice birth date. But, after looking at five dates for my great grandfather (census, marriage, ages at children’s birth, death), I reasoned that one was so far off that it had to be an “outlier” and that plus or minus one year for the other four was good enough.

  53. I have encountered this especially with my great-grandparents, William McComb and his wife Asa Benagh McComb.

    They lived in the fruit belt not far from Niagara Falls, NY. I’m sure they were working and one of the older children still at home provided the information by their best estimate.

    Many times census takers obtained the information by whoever could answer their questions not requiring it to be the man or woman of the house. Hence the incongruent info.
    from Brenda Miller

  54. When Frederick Grace enlisted in the U.S. Army, he said he was born in 1828 in Wurttemberg (Germany). But the 1870 census gives his birthdate as 1830 and says he was born in Pennsylvania and his parents were born in Germany. In 1880, he is born in 1830 and both his parents and grandparents are born in the USA. His death notice says he was 68 years of age, making his birth in 1830.

    Which to believe? The military 1828? Or did he lie about his age (18 not 16) to join the army? Was there an age requirement to join the army in 1843? Knowing that would make it more plausible that he lied to join the army and that he was really born in 1830.

    If anyone knows the answer, please email me.

  55. I have ancestors in South Carolina and Indiana. They lied about the children’s ages so the could work, mills in SC and coal mines here in Indiana. I have even found in South Carolina they would change the ages in the Family Bible because they had to have proof that the child was old enough for mill work.

  56. Just last night I went searching for birth records of a newly gathered family name. There were some obvious issues with the birth records when three registrations showed up as late registrations, made many years after the actual birth of the individuals. That caused me to become very curious. I decided to browse the Ontario birth registrations for the whole year/location on As it turns out, there was a good reason why one fellow was unable to locate his birth registration. His late application stated he thought he was born 6 years after his real birth registration was made. I wonder if he often felt older than he thought he was!

  57. My ancestors must love to see me pulling my hair out in frustration over their ages. Looking for my gt.g/father in 1851 census I found him aged 5 with parents John aged 30 and Mary Ann Mapp, who was aged 26. 1861 John was 40 but married to an Elizabeth. 1871 John is now aged 50 and married to Mary Ann aged 67. It took me so long to discover the first Mary Ann died, so did Elizabeth and hence the reason Mary Ann had grown so old in 30 years!

  58. my grandfather, john tobin, left canada in the early 1920’s. john was married to annastasia(fitsgerald) tobin, she and john had three daughters, ellen, mary, and genieveve. john landed in brooklyn ny, met and married a lady from ireland,(lady’s name and county of birth unknown.) prior to john’s returning to his first wife in the late 1920’s, he and the lady had two sons. after he and annastasia reunited they settled in massachusetts and had two additional daughters, theresa and anna. through much effort no family member has been able to locate john’s sons. what would could of happened to their birth records. we believe their mother returned to ireland with her sons.

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