by Dawne

Did a 14-year-old boy father a child? This was the question that two patrons in The Genealogy Department had in one day. The first instance, which was discussed in a previous blog entry, may have been a case of two people with the same name in the same geographic area being mistaken for one. In the second case, it seems very possible that the boy was the father of the child … but he wasn’t 14 years old at the time the child was born.

The patron had an obituary stating that the father of her deceased female ancestor was a particular man with a rather uncommon first name – no one else of that name could be found in the area where the family lived. The obituary also gave the woman’s date of birth, which was in 1852. She had an obituary for the father, as well – or perhaps it was a picture of his cemetery marker – that said the father was born in 1838 or 1839. A 13- or 14-year-old father! But the woman’s obituary definitely stated that this man was her father. Part of the puzzle was that this woman, as a child in 1860, was not living in the man’s household. She was enumerated on the same page of the census in the household of another family with a different surname, however.

The problem here was those nice, clear-cut dates of birth in the obituaries. It’s so tempting to accept those as gospel over a “circa” date estimated from the census or other records. But when the potential father’s age was examined on all available federal census schedules, it became clear that he probably was born in 1832 or 1833, rather than in 1838 or 1839. And his possible daughter probably was born about 1855, rather than 1852. So it is quite likely after all that this man, at the age of about 23, could have been her father.

Something to keep in mind about death records, obituaries and cemetery markers is that the information for all of them was given by someone other than the subject, and the informant may not have known the facts. We cannot know (until 1940) who gave the information for the census enumerations, but if it was the person himself or his or her parent – someone in the position to know the facts firsthand – the data may be more likely to be correct. The census information about the ages of this potential father and daughter also was provided closer to the time of the events – their births – and sometimes that can add to its accuracy.

Don’t be tripped up believing that a fact is correct because several different records have the same information, either. “But it must be right – it’s on the obituary and the death record and the tombstone!” Keep in mind that the information for those three particular kinds of records probably was contributed by the same individual, who may have been wrong! In the case of other kinds of records, one may have copied the information from another.

The lesson here is, watch for those red flags! Don’t discount family stories and pieces that don’t fit perfectly, but question them, explain them, continue to research them. Some likely will turn out to be completely wrong, and others will fit once an incorrect piece of data or two is exposed.