Genealogy Tips: Problems with Personal Names, Place Names, Dates & Occupations (Part II)

Introduction: In this second installment of a two-part article, Jessica Edwards gives tips for dealing with difficult dates and occupations in your family history research. Jessica has had a lifelong interest in her family’s history – especially on her father’s side, which goes back to the first settlers in Pennsylvania, Jamestown and New England – and has documented and added more than 21,000 people to her family tree!

What Was That Date Again?

Dates are more difficult to recall years after an event, and are more easily miswritten than other types of data in genealogy, so it is important to determine whether the date you find in a record was recorded at the time of the event or sometime later.

Dates of birth in vital records, civil registrations, and in church records at baptism are generally accurate because they were usually recorded near the time of the event. But keep in mind that there is still a small chance for discrepancies, like in my mother’s case: she was born in the early afternoon at a hospital, and the hospital birth certificate and my grandmother said it was September 6th – BUT the state birth certificate and the doctor said it was the seventh of September.

Family Bibles are often a source for dates, but may have been entered long after the event. When the same ink and handwriting is used for all entries, the dates were probably written at the same time and are less reliable – since the earlier dates were probably recorded well after the events (not to mention the potential for transcription errors if they were copying from another record). The publication date of the Bible also provides a clue about when the dates were recorded, since they could not have been recorded any earlier than when the Bible was printed.

People sometimes reduce their age on marriage records, while those under “full age” may increase their age in order to legally marry or to join the armed forces. Sometimes people change the year of marriage in family documents so that children don’t realize they “were early” or “born out of wedlock.”

At my father’s funeral (I was almost 40 years old) I was looking at the funeral notice and saw they had his year of birth as 1935, and I said to my mother that there had been a typographical error made. But she said there was no error because my father’s true birth year was 1935, and that he had used 1934 to both join the navy (so that he could fight in the Korean War) and also so that he would be several years older than my mother instead of just 18 months. All my life I had thought he was older than he really was.

Census returns are notoriously unreliable for ages or for assuming an approximate death date. Remember, you don’t know: who provided the age; how reliable they were; or where they got their knowledge from.

Although baptismal dates are often used to approximate birth dates, some families waited years before baptizing children, and adult baptisms are the norm in some religions and some eras or regions. Both birth and marriage dates may have been adjusted to cover for pre-wedding pregnancies.

Calendar changes must also be considered: in 1752, England and her American colonies changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar – and in the same year, the date the New Year began was changed (prior to 1752 it was 25 March; this was changed to 1 January). Many other European countries had already made the calendar changes before England had, sometimes centuries earlier. By 1751 there was an 11-day discrepancy between the date in England and other European countries.

So, What’s Your Line?

Occupational information is helpful for understanding an ancestor’s life and for distinguishing two people with the same name. A person’s occupation may have been related to his or her social status, political interest, and migration pattern, and since skilled trades are often passed from father to son, occupation may also be indirect evidence of a family relationship.

It is important to remember that occupations sometimes changed or may be easily misunderstood. Workers no longer fit for their primary trade often took less prestigious jobs later in life. As trades became outdated the person may have had to change occupation. Many unskilled ancestors had a variety of jobs depending on the season and local trade requirements.

Census returns may contain some embellishment; e.g., from laborer to mason, or from journeyman to master craftsman, as people tried to appear more affluent.

Names for old or unfamiliar local occupations may cause confusion if the handwriting of the enumerator was poor. For example, an ostler (a keeper of horses) and a hostler (an innkeeper) could easily be confused for one another.

Likewise, descriptions of such occupations may also be problematic. The perplexing description “ironer of rabbit burrows” may turn out to describe an ironer (which is a profession) in the Bristol district named Rabbit Burrows. Several trades have regionally preferred terms: “shoemaker” and “cordwainer” have the same meaning. Finally, many apparently obscure jobs are part of a larger trade community (like watch making, framework knitting or gun making).

Occupational data may be reported in occupational licenses, tax assessments, membership records of professional organizations, trade directories, census returns, and vital records (civil registration). Most libraries have occupational dictionaries available to explain many obscure and archaic trades.

Summing It All Up

Go slow and document everything so that if you find things that are different, you can go back and look at where you got your material originally (a smudge can make a “6” look like an “8” or an “F” look like an “E”). For example, I recently went on “” and found the tombstone for a relative. The date of death matched my records as did the husband’s name – but the year of birth was five years off, so I asked for someone to go back out and photograph that portion of the tombstone again, and found that the person who had originally transcribed the date of birth had mistaken a “3” for an “8.”

Happy Hunting!

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