During your research you will stumble over conflicting dates. Different sources, different dates, which one is reliable? Deciding which date to choose over the other(s) sometimes isn’t easy.
Records offer conflicting dates for the same event? Now what?
Let’s say you have different birth dates for the very same person.
- Parish register says the child was baptized on the 14th and born the night before.
- The original civil birth register says the birth was on the 14th.
- The duplicate of the civil register has the 17th as the birth date.
Now which date would you pick as the correct birth date?
What is a primary source?
A primary source basically is is an eyewitness account, created during or shortly after an event. Birth registers are primary sources for births, marriage records for marriages, death records for deaths obviously.
Church registers usually record religious events like baptisms, church weddings and burials. For those events they are primary records. But often they also contain information about other events, like the birth date in an entry for baptism, marriage or burial. In that case the church records are a primary source for the baptism, marriage or burial and a secondary source for the birth.
Unless… yes, there are exceptions: If it wasn’t customary to record a birth as an own event, like in times before the first civil codes appeared in Germany, the church record can be considered a primary source for birth dates as well since there is no other record confirming the birth.
Other sources can be primary and/or secondary sources as well, like newspapers reporting a death. Until you find the actual death record the newspaper can be considered a primary source. As soon as there is a death record it will be the primary and the newspaper the secondary source. Same is true for letters, journals or a census. As long as there are no other sources closer to the event all those can be considered primary sources.
What is a secondary source?
Secondary (or lower ranked) sources were created a longer time after an event and/or by by someone who did not experience that event first-hand. While some history books can be primary sources if the author witnessed the event(s) personally, most other histories usually are secondary sources. Their authors were told about events and decided to write them down, but they didn’t experience them personally.
Let me give you an example: You find a diary of your grandpa Joe. Yay, first-hand experiences written down, primary source, great! Really? Is this diary a primary source for everything mentioned in it?
- Your grandpa Joe wrote down his experiences at school and while he learned to be a carpenter. He experienced that personally and was old enough to remember it later on. Yes, primary source.
- Grandpa Joe also writes about his birth and his bad health, how his mother Sue had a swollen face from all the crying, and that the family kept hoping and praying he’d survive… Yes, he experienced his birth personally, obviously.
- But… was he really aware of what was wrong? Would he have noticed that his mother kept weeping? How did he know that his family was praying for him? My guess would be that someone who had been there and seen all that told him about it. So… in this regard the diary is a secondary source.
- Grandpa Joe also wrote that his dad Mike told him how Mike met Sue. Grandpa Joe probably wasn’t even planned at that time so he couldn’t have experienced it, he hadn’t been there at all. So, the diary also is a secondary source in this case.
- And Grandpa Joe also wrote about how his grandparents Jim and Molly met and about their first romantic date. Your great grandfather Mike told his son (Joe) that your great great grandfather’s best friend Jake told him about the date.
- So… probably your great great grandparents (Jim and/or Molly) told their friend (Jake) about their romantic date some days or weeks after it, Jake told his friend’s son Mike decades after the date, then again some decades later your great grandfather (Mike) told his own son Joe about the date, and in his old age your grandfather (Joe) wrote it down for you to read.
- Definitely not a primary source, right? Not even a secondary source to be honest but we won’t be splitting hairs here – you get the point…
In any case: note down all information, don’t skip anything because you consider it a third-, fourth- or tenth-rate source. But keep in mind: it’s a bit like “Stille Post” (German name of the “telephone game”) – the longer the distance, the longer the chain of people between event and record, the less accurate the information may be.
What about edited material, like transcriptions or translations?
I do NOT consider edits (transcriptions, transliterations and translations) to be proper primary sources even if their original is a primary source.
- To err is human and there’s always the possibility of a mistake, letters swapped or omitted, words almost illegible and easy to misinterprete, things like that.
- As you probably are aware of there also are many ways to translate certain terms, some of which may have identical meanings in one language and different meanings in the other or don’t have an analog counterpart in the other language. Sometimes there actually is NO way of translating a text properly without changing at least a part of its meaning.
- And as well-meant people may be, editors of primary sources can always “verschlimmbessern” the text. (“Verschlimmbessern” is not an official German word though many people use this weird word-combo. It means that you try to improve something (“verbessern”) but make it worse instead (“verschlimmern”), hence “ver-schlimm-bessern”).
Edited texts’ in/from another language may vary in quality depending on the editor, so please use those texts with reasonable caution. Always record the original text together with the edited text, along with a note that the text is transcribed and/or translated and who did this edit.
Now what to do when you find contradicting information in two different sources?
Let’s see what you should do in the above mentioned case:
- At first determine which sources are primary sources for that particular event: birth records for a birth date, baptism records for a baptism, etc.
- Skip the church register for the date of birth since it documents the baptism, not the birth.
- Also skip the duplicate civil register because that’s a secondary source of a much later date with a higher risk of mistakes. The 17 probably is a misread 14.
- Primary source for the birth date is the original civil register, hence note the 14th as correct birth date. This does not conflict with the parish record which states that the child was born the night before the 14th – which isn’t necessarily the 13th.
- Primary source for the baptism is the parish register, hence the correct date of baptism would be the 14th too. Sometimes someone later added a note about the date of baptism in the civil registers. It either confirms the primary source – or it conflicts with it. In that case ignore the handwritten note, always pick the primary source.
Have your ancestors’ dates always been clear and precise or did you have to struggle with the occasional date?