Avoiding genealogical gridlock

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gps-304842_640 (1)I have used a number of GPS devices over the years to find my way while driving. I won’t mention the brand names but there were three different manufacturers, plus two different apps on my phone. They all claim to find the fastest route from point A to point B, but they all tell me to go a different way. Sometimes, they don’t get me where I need to go at all. I usually figure this out when I see the “Welcome To Kenosha” signs! There can only be one “fastest way” to from A to B but they all seem to calculate that route just a little differently.

So why do these devices take me five different ways to get to the same goal? And why do they sometimes take me to the wrong place? Its heart, if you will, is in the right place. They don’t try to screw you up. They sometimes misinterpret what you ask for. They sometimes use a slightly different way to calculate the fastest way.

Why all this blather about GPS’s in a genealogy column, you ask? Well, I answer, as a genealogist you are trying to find specific pieces of information about your ancestors. There are ways of getting there: Some are faster than others, and some get you to the wrong place. No method is perfect. However, you should be prepared for the fact that there are many ways to get to your goal and some of them are going to get you stuck in genealogical gridlock.

Let’s say that you are looking for your grandfather’s birth date. So far you have not looked in Italian records yet, because you don’t know what year to look in. You are using American resources only, as a first step. Once you find his birth date, you can order the correct microfilm of Italian records.

So you get a copy of his death certificate. He died in 1949. It says he was “about 65”. There is no birth date. In fact a lot of death certificates say “About 65” when they have no clue. So you go to Mount Carmel to find his gravestone, and it says 1880-1949. No date, but at least you have a year. You order the 1880 birth microfilm for the right town in Italy and there is no one of his name born in 1880. Now what? He died too early for the Social Security Death Index (which starts with deaths about 1962 and later). Ancestry.com has his World War I draft card, which lists his birth date as June 1st, 1882. You know it’s him because the street address is correct. Then you check his passenger list. It lists his age only, which would set his birth date at 1884. Oh yes! Census records! He wasn’t here in 1900. He was 28 in 1910. He was 37 in 1920, and I can’t find him in 1930 and he was 55 in 1940.

Good grief, you have a complete jumble of different possible birth years for Papa. What do you do with this mess? The good news is that you have narrowed the possible age to only a few years. If it is economical to order microfilms covering this span of years, you should skip to the last page of the novel and see how it ends! Let’s say for the sake of argument that each year is on its own microfilm and it would cost a lot of money to order them all. First step is to narrow it down.

So who do you trust? Which of these records is more accurate than the others? The way to narrow down the right date is to determine who provided the data that appears on each of these sources.

His death certificate clearly does not know the answer but we do know who provided the information: the Informant. Many times, if the illness was sudden, the informant is a hospital record keeper or just someone who works there. If Papa died of a sudden heart attack at work, and Nonna didn’t get to the hospital in time to say goodbye, the informant on the death certificate might be a total stranger. This total stranger thought Papa was “about 65” and he was pretty close. But we don’t want “pretty close”. We want a horseshoe dead ringer!

We are still dealing with a record that records his birth, but it is being thought about after his death. It is a long period of time, and unless one celebrates birthdays into old age, with parties and hats and gifts, it becomes somewhat forgotten. After all, they didn’t have Facebook reminders of people’s birthdays every year back then! But here is something else to consider when dealing with finding birthdates on death-related records. You all know how your relatives grieve. People have a hard time thinking clearly when they sent Papa to work in the morning and he is dead by noon. They don’t think clearly even if Papa was sick for six months. At that particular moment in time, the date and place of birth is just a bit of minutia that just isn’t a top priority right now. So even if the informant is the widow, the data on the death certificate can be quite inaccurate. And our older ancestors didn’t always go to the hospital when they were sick. It would keep them away from work and they could lose their job. So they would go to work with chest pains. Gotta tough it out! However, for us, it means there might not be good records at the local hospital. The widow is not thinking clearly but probably knows the right information. The hospital record keeper is not grieving a loss, but has no good data to work with.

How about the gravestone? That has to be right. After all, it’s carved in stone! The bad news is that it is still after the death. The good news is that maybe, this detail was handled days or weeks after the funeral and people are thinking a little more clearly than they did in the hours after his death. My experience in finding gravestones and looking for dates (and I have done thousands) has been that if they carved the full birth date on the grave marker, chances are they were somewhat confident in its accuracy. They knew that date would be there, theoretically, forever. If they only carve the year, it’s ok if it’s a little off. There are cases where the birth year on the death certificate doesn’t match the birth year on the grave marker, and this can only be explained by the fact that someone sat down and thought about it and told the funeral director, or the monument company, the true date, as they know it.

The census records, which occur every ten years, have Papa not quite ten years older each time. It depends on who is the informant there too. The 1940 census has an x with a circle next to the name of the person who spoke to the census taker. If it’s a family member, then it’s a little more trustworthy. If it’s the tenant in the downstairs apartment, who knows how accurate it might be? If they follow the Italian pattern of having extended family in a three-flat together, then it’s still family who is giving the census taker the information.

So, after all this, who do you trust? Well, the general rule of thumb is that the date that appears in the piece of paper that was created as close to the date of birth as possible, is probably right. What does this mean? When a person is very young, there is little compelling reason to lie about their age, or to forget how old they are. When a person is older, they may fib a little to avoid military service (in Italy or here) or to get a job at a young age to support the family. Some women lied about their age to marry at a very young age as well. When they are much older, they forget how old they really are, or they don’t want to remember back to the bad times that made them leave Italy. Everybody has their own reason why they don’t care whether they are 70 or 75 or what! There are two records that leave almost no time to find a reason to change the date: the birth certificate itself, and the baptismal record at the church. I know these don’t solve the problem we have been working on all this time, because those records are in Italy, and if we knew his birth date, we would just go to the right film and find it! But those are the two most accurate records for birth dates. The latest records, those created when Papa died, are the least accurate.

You will probably notice that there are almost no mistakes regarding someone’s death date. There is a death certificate, which has to be accurate by law. There is the grave stone, which is being carved a very short time after death. There might be a mention of the death date in the newspaper death notice. The death date is printed on the funeral card. All of this happens within a few days of the death, and there is no compelling reason to lie about a death date. But a birth has no such pile of government paperwork. You have a birth certificate, a baptismal record at the church, and that’s that! So when all these other documents are filled out years and sometimes decades after the birth, there is more time and more reason to fill it out inaccurately.

Believe me that not everyone fits this pattern. Some of you reading this column are thinking “I have no problem with this. I have 27 documents on my father and they all have the same birth date and we always had cake and biscot’ on his birthday!” No matter how many other documents you may have, find the birth certificate anyway. Once someone picks their own birth date, they may use that date again and again for the rest of their lives. It doesn’t make it right. My grandma celebrated her birthday all her life on November 15th, and only after she died did I find her baptism record that confirmed she was born on November 5th! Every paper she ever filled out in this country said November 15th. She only shaved ten days off her age, but it made all 27 documents wrong, even if they matched each other.

Hopefully you will find multiple documents with the same birth date on them. It would be the most likely place to start your search in the Italian records.

About Dan Niemiec

Dan Niemiec has been the genealogy columnist for Fra Noi since 2004. For the past 25 years, he has researched his genealogy back 17 generations, plus tracing descendants of his ancestors, yielding 74,000 relatives. His major focus is on civil and church records in Italy, Chicago vital records, Chicago Catholic records and most major genealogy web sites. He has given dozens of presentations to many local and some national genealogy societies on topics such as cemetery research, Catholic records, Italian records, Ellis Island and newspaper research, among others.

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