Tuesday, April 6, 2010

What Do You Do with Conflicting Evidence

This entry has been percolating in my mind for a few weeks. In the first episode of Who Do You Think They Are viewers were shown that it is possible to find conflicting evidence. That historical documents aren't always correct.

Sarah Jessica Parker's ancestor, John Hodge, is mentioned in an obituary of his son as having died in 1849 enroute to California. But he appears in the 1850 California Census. Further research showed that he died in California in a gold-mining accident. Probably in the years between his death and his son's death "dying in California searching for gold" became "dying enroute to California." It's not unusual for family stories to be less than 100% accurate.

I wonder if some viewers jumped to the conclusion that the census was obviously the correct document, as it was more reliable than an obituary written years later. On the contrary, it was equally possible for the result of the research to be the opposite.

It was possible that the individual listed in the 1850 census and the individual listed in the Ohio obituary were the same, but the obituary was correct that he had died enroute to California.

At first glance this might seem an impossibility; If he died enroute, how could he end up in the census? But if there was someone in California waiting for him to arrive, a business partner perhaps, who didn't know he was dead, they could have mentioned his name to the census taker. Sure, they weren't supposed to do that. But maybe they figured that he was going to show up any day, and he ought to be counted.

Incorrect information on the census isn't uncommon. And it's not always the fault of the census taker. Lots of people lie. And others don't know the truth. I came across one census that listed children who had been dead for a decade. I have no clue who answered the door and provided this misinformation, or why. (But since the only census these two children should have appeared on was the 1890 census, which was destroyed, it is kind of nice, albeit morbid, that they appeared on the 1900 census too.)

Vital Records, even though they are usually considered "Primary Records," also have errors on them. The birth certificate of my great uncle, Allen Deutsch, gives his name as 'Adolph' - and no certificate of correction was ever filed. Family agrees his birth name wasn't "Allen," but say it was Abraham, after his grandfather. While there was certainly reason for the 'family story' to change post-1939, he was born in 1914, and there is no record of the name 'Adolph' being used in the early years. Abraham appears on the 1920 census, and Albert appears on the 1930 census, suggesting the migration to "Allen" had begun.

There are other errors on the document. It says Allen was the 7th child, but he was the 8th, as one had died in Europe. The document says both parents were born in Varmezo. This matches his father's military documents. However, it's known his mother came from the village of Margitta.

Birth Affidavits (filled out when birth certificates were unavailable) also can be unreliable for obvious reasons. Either the individual didn't know the truth, or intentionally provided incorrect information. While I would like to find evidence to support the former, with respect to my maternal grandmother's Birth Affidavit, I have difficulty believing she and her sister forgot what year she was born. Every census my grandmother appears in, including the 1945 Florida State Census, her age is correct. However, in October of 1945, she declared she was born five years later, and her older sister acted as witness. My best guess is my grandmother thought she might have to look for a job, and felt it would be easier if she were 40, rather than 45.

When conflicting evidence is discovered, there's no quick and easy Rock-Paper-Scissors (or even a Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock) method to figuring out which document is correct. Vital records don't always beat census reports, which don't always beat family lore. The only solution is further research, with the hope of uncovering more documentation that clarifies the situation.

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