Figuring Out An Ancestor’s Actual Birth Year

Records that include your ancestor’s birth year are not necessarily accurate. Most records before the modern computerized era have self-reported ages, from censuses to marriage records, so often show incorrect information.

I remember being asked by a census taker about my neighbors. I really did not know the answers and said so, but in many cases I think people do answer for their neighbors. Also no census taker has ever asked me for an id. This made me realize how inaccurate census records could be for birth years as well as for the spelling of names, which I already knew about.

Dada’s gravestone shows a year of 1853

A fine demonstration of these inaccuracies are the many records for my great grandfather Henry H Lee (born H. Halvorsen Skjold in Norway) known to his family as Dada. I found that he kept getting younger in each document and census. A letter from his daughter written in the early 1900s states he was born in 1849 but most documents in America have 1852. His gravestone, shown above, has a birth year of 1853! Please remember that the birth year reported on your ancestor’s death certificate and gravestone came from the surviving family members, so can easily be incorrect.

So is the birth record reliable? Back then births happened at home so they were reported by the family or midwife. Several of Dada’s children had a mother of Mary Walters listed by the midwife in Brooklyn when her name was actually Maren Wold (proven many times over with DNA!). So birth records can have errors too, especially when your ancestors may have had thick accents while speaking English.

People in the 1800s baptized their children as soon as possible. Thus the baptism date, entered by a churchman, is one date that is surely accurate.

The Norwegians have put many of their country’s church books online. To solve the question of Dada’s birth year, I looked through all the pages of births for Dada’s original home town, Etne, Hordaland from 1849 until nine months after his father died in 1852.

These are the the birth records I found in the online Norwegian Archives for Halvor and Hans of farm Skjold. They show the birth in the second column and the baptism in the third column. Some of my Norwegian ancestors seem to self-report their baptism dates as their birthdays later in life but not Dada. He usually used March 18.

Entry for the birth of Halvor in 1852 on May 30

Entry for the birth of Hans in 1849 on March 18

So which one of these two is Dada? Henry is the normal Anglicization of Hans, but Dada reported his birth year as 1852 fairly consistently in America. Could he be Halvor? But he usually said march 18 was his birthday, so then Hans. How can I figure this out? The DNA has shown that these parents of Dada are correct but not which brother he might be.

These are the documents I have (click any to see the document)

There is a five volume local history book for Etne of which I own volumes II-V. The farm Skjold is in volume V and it states that Hans born in 1849 emigrated to America while Hallvard born 1852 moved to Stord, a nearby Norwegian island in Hordaland.

source: Etne-soga by Ståle Dyrvik, vol V “Folket. Grindheim sokn.” Skjold p.128

So of course, like any serious genealogist would, I tracked down the descendants of Halvor/Hallvard in Stord, Hordaland, Norway (via FaceBook and Their family story is consistent with the 1852 date, so now I am confident that the child listed as Hans born in 1849 is my great grandfather not the child listed as Halvor born in 1852.

The moral of this story? Treat all birth year data with suspicion except the actual birth record and remember that immigrants will often anglicize their names once in America.

Dada surrounded by his family, more on my family site at

A special thank you to Blaine Bettinger for the post in his Genetic Genealogy Tips & Techniques Facebook group which inspired the telling of this tale.


6 thoughts on “Figuring Out An Ancestor’s Actual Birth Year

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  1. I went to a genealogy “class” a few years ago, and when I wondered how any family could name a child the same as a prior deceased child, she explained that when registering a birth, they paid a tax of some sort, and if that child died and they had another of the same sex, would give him/her the same name to avoid another tax!!!

  2. My Norwegian cousin Steinar in Etne also pointed out that, “Another aspect of this particular subject is: If the year Hans Skjold (Henry Lee) emigrated to America in 1865 is fixed, and then, if he was born in 1853 or 1852, he must have been 12 or 13 years old. Just a child. The story is, as far as I know, that he was working as a sailor before he emigrated. This does not make sense being 12 or 13 years. He would not have done his confirmation in the church at that age. Even in those days there would have been no chance for him to get a job as a sailor, and especially a sailor on a ship travelling abroad.
    The common age of confirmation in the church was when you were 15 years old. After the confirmation, you were recognized as grown up person, and then you were allowed work as a grown up person. So out from that, the birth year has to be 1849, which falls in line with what the church books are showing.”

    However as told to his grandson Alex he said “He asked his brother to vouch for him in securing a post in the service of one of the many sailing ships at the port of Stavanger. He became a cook on a North Sea fisherman. … At fourteen he was confirmed and shipped as the member of the crew of a sloop in the Baltic. He qualified as an able seaman by his experience as a cook on the herring boat.”

  3. Some of my ancestors left Hamburg on a boat called the Skjold, so this was interesting.

    Totally agree with the importance of the birth year. I have many possible candidates for ancestors who have the same names in roughly the same area. The birth year is often the initial critical factor in telling which one is mine. Then I can find confirming evidence.

    My own case illustrates not the year, but the day.
    I was born at exactly midday, in a fair-sized maternity hospital with its own registrar for births. They had a system in that hospital that the day went from midday one day to midday of the next day. The only way I know this is that my mother was asked which day should my birth be registered. She chose what we would think of as the right day, not the day before.
    Tough for astrologers!

    • LOL! Skjold means shield in Norwegian.
      Thank you for your great story. I have something similar with my Jewish ancestors, when they were born after sundown the jewish date of birth is the next day!

  4. Enthincity according to Ancestry is 13% Norwegian for me.
    My maternal mtdna test shows many unfamiliar names ending with “dotter”. Would that be Norwegian and would it be possible to find out more about my connection to them?
    Appreciate any advice.
    Thank you

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