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Why Don't Dates Ever Match in Genealogy?
by Melody Lassalle

Dates give every genealogist headaches. Seeing things from a different perpective gives insights into these discrepancies.

The year is 2002. Every family has records galore. You name it, you've got it: birth, marriage, and death certificates, insurance policies, driver's license, report cards, and so on. You've shown certain documents so many times that they are beginning to look like the Dead Sea scrolls. You keep an appointment book on your desk and another on your computer. The wall calendar points out weekly appointments as well as birthdays and anniversaries. Your days are sometimes separated in minutes, not hours.

Now, picture yourself in the year 1902. You work out in the sugar cane fields 10 hours a day. You have two children and your wife is pregnant with the third. You never learned to read or write, but you can sign your name. You came to Hawaii when you were 12. You really wanted to go to school and learn things...maybe even be the first in your family to go to college. However, a year after your family came to Hawaii, you father became ill and could not work. You and your older siblings went to work in the fields so your family could survive.

No one had appointment books and computers weren't even a part of an inventor's dream. You have your marriage certificate in the dresser. However, since you and your wife can't read, there really isn't any reason for written records. Besides, it's all in your head. Let's see, you were married 7 years after you got to Hawaii. Your first child was born a year after your father died. That was right before the rains caused the roof to cave in. Your wife is one year younger than your sister who just turned 20 or was it 21?

As a researcher, dates can be so frustrating. How could a person not remember their own birth date or when they arrived in Hawaii? How does someone start at age 20 in 1900, become 42 in 1910, then end up 31 in 1920? Why didn't someone in the family keep all this stuff straight?

The world was a different place 100 years ago. Our obsession with days, hours, and minutes didn't exist. Many were illiterate so there was no point in written records. Most were so exhausted after working in the fields plus whatever side work they did to keep the family alive, that it just didn't seem important to make notes for future genealogists.

Deciphering dates creates so many headaches. There are so many factors at play. Language might have been a barrier. What the person heard and what your ancestor said could have been two different things. Or, your ancestor just wasn't sure, so they guessed as best they could. It does help to see things from a different perspective. If you had no calendars to remind you of events, how would you go about answering questions? How would your ancestor answer the same questions? Using 1900 as a reference date, this is how it might have gone:

Q: When did you arrive in Hawaii?
A: Well, I'm 25 now and I was about 10 went I first got here.
Recorder writes: 1885

Q: How old are your children?
A: Maria is 18 and Manoel was born 3 years later.
Recorder writes: Maria 18, Manoel 15

Q: When were your married?
A: Well, Isabella, our first child was born 5 years after we were married. She just turned 5.
Recorder writes: Married in 1890

This may not seem like a logical way to answer questions. However, your ancestor had to rely on his or her memory, not a calendar. They kept a mental record of births, deaths, marriages, illnesses, etc. By comparing the events, they could place them in their proper order, and recall dates to the best of their knowledge.

You can see how easily the dates were confused. Things that seemed one way in 1900, didn't always seem the same 20 years later. Use your own family for comparison. How many times do you and your siblings argue over when an Aunt died or which cousin married first? Thinking about dates in this manner helps you remain objective. There may be some truth in the recorded answers, it just might not be the answers you see!

copyright 2002 Melody Lassalle
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