You ever wonder how someone can say they are 43 in the 1920 Census, but they were married at the age of 28 in 1910? Dates give every genealogist headaches. Realizing that people didn’t keep track of events like we do today is important to understanding how these discrepancies occur.
The Modern American Tracks Everything
It’s the 21st century. Every family has records galore. You name it, you’ve got it: birth, marriage, and death certificates, insurance policies, driver’s license, report cards…the list is endless. You’ve shown certain documents so many times that they are beginning to look like the Dead Sea Scrolls.
You keep an appointment calendar on your phone that is synced to your laptop. The wall calendar points out weekly appointments as well as birthdays and anniversaries. Your days are sometimes separated in minutes, not hours.
Our Ancestors Had Fewer Things to Keep Track Of
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. You’ve never really had to sign your name to anything. When you do, X marks the spot.
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 finish school. However, a year after your family arrived, your father was injured and could not work. You and your older siblings went to work in the fields so your family could survive.
You married, you had kids, people died, people were born. Life is marked by cycles or events rather than by the calendar year.
Dates and Ages Are a Matter of Perspective
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?
Remember that most folks had no had appointment books. Computers weren’t even a part of an inventor’s dream. You had your marriage certificate in the dresser. However, since you and your wife couldn’t read, there really wasn’t any reason for you to look at it except to admire the pretty calligraphy.
Our ancestor most likely remembered important events in relation to other events in their lives. All of which, they kept in their heads.
Let’s see, you were married 7 years after you got to Hawaii. Your first child was born a year after your mother 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 40 or was it 43? So it was probably 1922.
We are Obsessed with Dates
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.
This is why pinpointing dates gives us such headaches. But, there is more to consider.
Language might have been a barrier. What what your ancestor said and what the recorder heard could have been two different things. If your ancestor wasn’t sure, they guessed as best they could.
How Would You Answer If You Had No Calendar?
It does help to see things from your ancestor’s perspective. If you had no calendars to remind you of events, how would you go about answering date specific questions? How would your ancestor answer the questions about their birth date or loved ones death date? 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
It May Not Seem Logical, But It’s The Way People Answered
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.
And, it wasn‘t all that important. They were decades away from needing certified official records to buy a home. They didn’t need to prove citizenship or residency to find a job.
A handshake and an X to signify your signature was good enough for any transaction. No one would be refused anything because they did not know their birth date.
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 a year or three off!
copyright 2002-2018 Melody Lassalle