Conflicts happen

1 year ago

In my previous column I discussed the need to weigh information when there are conflicts in birthdates or places in commonly used genealogical records particularly death records.  Let’s continue with other problems you may encounter.

Marriage records should be straightforward and good sources of birthdates and places.  After all the couple were there in person. But I’ve come across records where a bride or groom didn’t know the names of one or both of their parents.  I’ve seen multiple examples of this happening, as well as one of the parties listing the wrong birthplace for their parent or parents.  Sometimes siblings will give different birthplaces of their parents.  

If no official birth record for a parent exists you’ll need to consult other sources to try to determine a birthplace.  Often the census will help.  If a child says his mother was born in Aroostook but in every census she says she was born in New Brunswick, I’d list her birthplace as New Brunswick. 

Between censuses you may find wild variations. I’ve seen women fudge their ages, particularly if they’re older than their husbands.  The same thing can happen with marriage licenses.  Shaving a few years off isn’t surprising, but sometimes you’ll find huge age differences for an individual between censuses.  You’ll need to delve into other records to try to resolve the error.  

Keep in mind census takers weren’t perfect.  Check as many censuses as possible to determine if there is a pattern in given ages to determine if one particular census was just a simple mistake.

Some people out and out lied to census takers.  For example, Joseph Leavitt, an anglicized version of his name, came to the United States and worked in Pennsylvania where his two oldest children were born.  He then came to Foxcroft, where the remaining children were born.  Joseph seems to have played fast and loose with his birth information.  In 1930 he told the census taker he and his wife were born in Pennsylvania and that his parents were both English.  In 1940 he said he was born in the Netherlands and his parents were English.  Joseph’s children also gave their birthplaces as Pennsylvania even though they acknowledged their Maine births in other records.  When Joseph died in California, his obit didn’t mention his birthplace and his death record simply said “other country.”  

As I tracked Joseph, the records revealed he was born in the Russian Empire in what is now Lithuania but was then the Soviet Union.  Perhaps Joseph feared revealing his birthplace.  But in the 1950 census his widow listed her birthplace as Lithuania.  It is possible it was the first time she was able to speak to the census taker herself.   

I’ve also seen lies in naturalization papers and in military enlistment records.  Keep in mind people fibbed for one reason or another and you’ll need to watch for discrepancies among the records, weigh which records are the most believable and choose the most reliable source you can find.  

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft.  Nancy holds an MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at