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.
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.
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)
- His marriage certificate has his birth as May 30,1852 thus Halvor
- Both his passport applications, 1905 and 1921, have March 18, 1853, a mix of the two
- A letter his daughter wrote has March 18, 1849 so Hans
- The 1905 NY State Census estimated year is 1853.
- The 1910 census estimated year is 1852.
- His obituary lists him as 78 when he died so born in 1852.
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.
So of course, like any serious genealogist would, I tracked down the descendants of Halvor/Hallvard in Stord, Hordaland, Norway (via FaceBook and Geni.com). 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.
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.