Tips from the Pros: Is a Wrong Original the Problem? from Michael John Neill

When indexes are created, indexers are instructed to record information exactly as it appears on the original record. Humans do occasionally err, but it is important to remember that the error could have been done by the informant or the clerk filling out the record.

A search of the World War I Draft Cards at Ancestry indicates that 10,893 individuals in the database were born in 1918. There has to be something amiss someplace. Registrants for this draft could not actually have been born in 1918. My unscientific study of some of these hits failed to locate one card that did not say the registrant was born in 1918.

How could this happen? There are many reasons, but obviously none of the men were actually claiming to be under the age of 1. Registering men for a draft when war might have appeared imminent could have lead to some distraction on the part of the registrars. After all, how many of us today have accidentally put the incorrect year on a check when writing one?

It is important to keep this in perspective. There were approximately 24 million registrants for this draft–10,893 only represents .045% of the total—a small percentage to be certain, but enough to consider if you can’t locate your ancestor when searching by year of birth.

When searching any database, consider that one of the pieces your ancestor gave could have been either given or recorded incorrectly. It will impact how he appears in the database. Try altering or omitting one search term at a time. You may be pleasantly surprised at the results even if his age is correct. 

5 thoughts on “Tips from the Pros: Is a Wrong Original the Problem? from Michael John Neill

  1. You are so right!

    I was researching my maternal g-grandparents Thomas Roy Roach SR & Elsie Ann White. After fruitless research, I decided to work back from my grandfather, Thomas Roy Roach Jr. He was born in 1905 which is a historical birth records “dead zone”. I decided to find his SS number. It was not in the SSDI. Because he passed in 1964 and by Virginia state law, I was not entitled to receive a valid copy of his DC. I was able to get a “Virginia Verification of death certification” and thanks to the attendents, his SS# was given. The DC informant give his mother’s married name instead of her married name. No new info there! I then got a copy of his SS-5 application. His father’s middle name and his was notated as “Robert”. I knew this was wrong. His mother, Elsie had a last name of “Drew” on the SS-5 form. I had something to work with but I could find no records of her as a Drew. I new Elsie passed between 1920 & 30, I returned to VA Vital statistics, got her DC with her fathers surname name listed as “Dues” & mother the same. No historical record was found as “Dues, Dews” or phonetic sounding name together. I finally went to the State Library of Virginia and found my g-grandparents marriage record Index, then marriage certificate. Her fathers surname is given as “White”. I am now accepting “White” as her correct surname because my g-grandmother had direct input of her parents name. I also learned they were married 11 Dec 1902.

    I continue to try to find another document to verify the data I currently have. BTW her parents were listed as James & Ellen White. They are not found together with Elsie in any historical records I have researched so far. The journey continues.


  2. Thanks, Michael, for making this point. I’m currently wrestling with this issue on a personal family problem, with cousins who don’t want to believe an “officially” transcribed county courthouse book could err in its rendering of a groom’s name. Now I have somebody to quote and “words of wisdom” to refer them to .


  3. Oh yes!!! While prowling around a local cemetery recently, I noted a gravestone for a gentleman with birthdates that could make him a Revolutionary War Veteran. Checking through the DAR records, yes, indeed! Now I need to find any local descendants, to see if they are aware of this. Dates are very telling, when we really look at them! Also found two stones indicating the men to be Revolutionary Veterans, but can find no record (yet) of their service. “Thoughtful study” my English teacher told us — so right!

  4. I, too, struggled with a case of recording error. I was researching my great grandparents. I had their names, their parents names, when and where they married, but lost track of them before the 1850 census. They never appeared on a census together, as they married as teens in 1847, had a baby in 1848, and my gr-grandfather died in 1849. Fortunately, my gr-grandmother and her son (my grandfather) had unique names–Arabelle (Smith) Bridges and Bluford Butler Bridges. I could not locate Arabelle in the indexes and didn’t know how to see census records from another state. Then, Ancestry began scanning actual census records for research. When they made them available for a preview, I followed a hunch and looked for Arabelle’s father–John Hardy Smith-to see if she had moved back home. There, at the end of the list of his 10 family members were Arabelle and Bluford with “ditto marks” for their last names. They had been listed as Arabelle Smith and Bluford Smith by the census taker who “dittoed” all the last names.

  5. I had a hard time finding my dad in the WWI records, although I have a picture of him in his uniform, and discharge papers. Turned out he lied about his birth date (actually 1902) as being 1900, so he could enlist. He was 15 when he entered the service, and only told me his actual birhdate after he retired.

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