Are We Clear?

by Juliana Smith

Last week I got an e-mail from a conservation group that regularly sends me alerts and newsletters. The headline, “CPR Can Save Wildlife,” caught my attention, and when I looked at the photograph of grizzly bears next to it, I really did a double take. Were they suggesting that people should perform CPR on grizzly bears? Sounds kind of risky to me! As I read on, I realized that by CPR they meant the Canadian Pacific Railway and that made a bit more sense.

How often in our genealogy research do we run into similar problems? Maybe more often than we realize.

Regional Misinterpretation
It’s important to remember that geographic abbreviations haven’t remained static over the years. Ia., commonly thought of as the abbreviation of Iowa, was at one time commonly used as the abbreviation for Indiana. NB may have meant New Brunswick or Nebraska.

When we think of the Northwest, we might think of the Pacific Northwest (such as is represented in the map of The Northwest, 1865-90), but a couple hundred years ago, the Northwest Territory was actually the area which now comprises Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota. (As shown in this map of The United States, 1783-1802)

Last week, George gave us a great reminder in the Tips from the Pros regarding how we record locations. Not only should we take care in how we interpret the way a geographic location is listed in a record, we also need to take care in how we cite it in our family history, both for ourselves and for those we intend to share our family history with.                                                                

Mass Confusion
Sometimes in our joy at finding a new record, we may misinterpret a date as well, or perhaps jump to an incorrect conclusion. Those of you who have read some of my previous columns have probably heard me mention “Bishop Loughlin’s Dispensations, Diocese of Brooklyn, 1859-66, Volume I,” by Joseph Silinonte. The book covers dispensations to marry that were granted by Bishop Loughlin of Brooklyn, New York, for couples who had some type of impediment to being married in the church. The book lists the bride’s name, groom’s name, place of nativity, residence, names of parents, a date and church code, and for some, a number representing comments listed in another part of the book that list other important information, mostly the names of deceased husbands of widowed prospective brides.

Since these are marriage banns, one might jump to the conclusion that the date provided is the marriage date, but in fact the introduction tells us that, “From reading over 5200 marriage Dispensations it does not appear to be the date of the marriage, though it could be. It most likely is the date Bishop Loughlin entered the information or request into his records.” Without reading the foreword it would be easy for a researcher to jump to the conclusion that the date was a marriage date, while the actual date might be months off.

Other more common cases where we may find dates being confused include births and baptisms, and deaths and burials. Once I caught myself grabbing the date a doctor began treating the deceased on a death certificate, rather than the date of death. If we’re not careful, these are easy mistakes to make, and that is why it is so important to see documentation for data obtained from other people, whether through them sharing it or by obtaining it yourself. Even if the date is off only by a small amount of time, it can make a huge difference if we are using that date to request other records.

Avoiding Problems
To be clear on what is meant in records, databases, print publications, or any other genealogical source, we often need to look beyond the actual record itself. Look at the purpose of the record. Might an ancestor have lied about his age on a military record to get into (or out of) the service? Look at who created the record or provided the information. Did a nephew, cousin, friend, or neighbor provide information for a death certificate or obituary–someone who really might not have the correct date or place of birth? Or perhaps the funeral home got it wrong. The funeral card for my great-grandfather lists 1879 as his date of birth. Fortunately for us, one of the surviving cards has, in my grandmother’s handwriting, “Date is wrong. Dad was born in 1869.”

If you’re using a publication, database, index, or some other compilation, read introductory materials. For census records, check out the instructions given the enumerators.  This information is critical to your analysis of your findings and can make the difference between taking the right path or the wrong path.

Look at your interpretations–do an audit of your records and see if perhaps in the midst of a little happy dance, maybe you grabbed the wrong date, or even mistyped it. And when you’re looking to incorporate someone else’s family history into yours, use the same standards you use in your own research. Make sure you’re clear on the facts, sources, abbreviations, and anything else that could be confused. The consequences won’t be as dire as giving CPR to a grizzly, but doing so will help you keep your family history on the right path. 

Juliana Smith has been the editor of newsletters for more than eight 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 of 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.

Click here for a printer-friendly version of this article.

14 thoughts on “Are We Clear?

  1. when I click on the “printer friendly version” I get this message:

    “Sorry, the page you requested was not found.

    You may have found an outdated link or typed the address incorrectly. Please try again or go back to the last page. You can also use the links below to help find what you are looking for.”

  2. Julia,

    Once again, I find your advice so timely and would like to share it with our members at Ancestral Trails with your permission. Ann Sipes, copy editor for Ancestral News, a quarterly publication of Ancestral Trails Historical Society, P.O. Box 573, Vine Grove, KY 40175

    Ann Sipes

  3. My husband’s grandfather fudged his birthdate on his request for naturalization by a couple of months to make it look as though he entered the country before he turned 18. It simplified the naturalization process and shortened the time required. It took me a few minuted to figure out why this one date was different from the others.

  4. My greatgrandfather made himself a few years younger in New York state to escape service in the Civil War – he reverted to his correct age after the war, when he moved to California!

  5. >>Ia., commonly thought of as the abbreviation of Iowa, was at one time commonly used as the abbreviation for Indiana

  6. My comment was cut in half. The rest of it was: and Ancestry didn’t tell its foreign transcribers this so thousands of native Indianans are now Iowans on the census indexes–even before Iowa was a state.

  7. When I was researching one of my GGGrandfather’s, there was mention of him practicing medicine in Florida. This was puzzing since everything else concerning him placed him in Ohio or Michigan, but I dutifully noted it. It was several months later that I found out that there is a Florida, Ohio. That makes a whole lot more sense.

  8. I found this article amusing in its accuracy! My own Marriage Certificate has the DATE OF MY MARRIAGE WRONG! By the time my husband and myself looked closely and discovered it, our best man could not be found to have him ‘re-witness’ a new Oregon Vanity Certificate. We have made the assumption that the Minister who performed our ceremony submitted the ‘official’ paperwork that Oregon requires correctly. (My husband and I have since become ordained and he has done a few marriages so we know that the witnesses signatures are only on what Oregon calls the “Vanity” certificate. The state doesn’t consider it important.

    I was also tickled at the mention of lying to get into military service. The family story was that my grandfather, Fred Fuecker, lied about his age so he could join the service. I have since discovered that he did. He was a Private in 1911, at the ripe age of 16!

    My grandaunt on the otherhand, took advantage of a Boeing company personnel paper loss and altered the birth certificate she gave to them as a replacement to show that she was 10 years younger. This was in the days of mandatory retirement and she couldn’t afford to retire at 65. 🙂 Margaret Ward Royall was a grand lady!

    Have found many records like this and enjoyed them all, especially when I discover the story of WHY?

  9. I am having the same problem as Pat Reeser (see comment #1 above). The difficulty is with the ‘printer friendly’ link to this article, which should not be out of date.

  10. This comment is for Pat and Kay. When this happens to me it is usually because I have been reading so long that the server has severed my internet connection. Make sure you are still connected, then try again.

  11. A copy of my grandmothers birth certificate gives DOB Fourth December 1881; date of registration Nineteenth November 1881. Whats the most feasible explanation for this?

  12. Pingback: Foreign Brides

  13. Pingback: Bbc is ok... just ok imo.

  14. Pingback: find anything you want

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *