How do we differentiate between ‘Fact or Fiction’ in family documents? [Update]

By Paul Chiddicks, chiddicksfamilytree.com,
Chesire, England
Guest Author to MCG

Paul Chiddicks provided this thoughtful approach to discerning conflicts and presumed “facts” from historical documents. Read on for good ideas on how to examine all the evidences–or discover more.

This article originally appeared in Paul’s blog, The Chiddicks Family Tree. He has graciously allowed MCG to share the article. It appears here with minor adjustments for a U.S. audience.

A father’s name on a birth certificate, is that a fact?

The birth certificate itself is the ‘evidence,’ anything stated on the certificate is then normally classed as a ‘fact,’ including the birth date and the father’s name. But what if that information is, in fact, incorrect?

How can we determine what is a fact, against what is fiction, against what is unknown, or what is a deliberate lie!

As genealogists, we search for the truth, we look for evidence to prove and disprove a theory, and we look at all the evidence before we reach a reasoned conclusion. But what if the facts are not correct? What happens if the facts that have been recorded are wrong?

Here are two examples:

We could find a gap in the records themselves. In the UK, a fact recorded in the local civil registration office, that is ‘missed off’ the returns to the General Register Office. We sometimes forget that there are two sets of BMD indexes. The first is the one created and kept at local level by the register office where your ancestor’s birth marriage or death was registered and the second is the national index, the General Register Office Index. The GRO Index is prone to copying errors and omissions. The records held at district register offices are more accurate than those held by the GRO because they have not been repeatedly copied. If a birth took place towards the end of a quarter, it could take it over in to the next quarter’s registration and even into the following year if the birth was in December! So was Grandma born in 1908 or 1909?

We could find individuals incorrectly named and listed on Census returns. From 1841 to 1901 a pre-printed UK census schedule was left to be completed by each household. It was then collected by the enumerator who copied the information into an enumeration book. It is these enumeration books that we consult today online and on microfilm. If there was no one in the house who could read or write, the enumerator helped to record the information. Unfortunately, there can be mistakes in the records, as the enumerator would be transcribing the information from the original schedules and could be recording incorrect information from illiterate households, or the households themselves could, of course, be deliberately misleading the enumerator!

So how do we decide which facts are true and which facts are fiction? Sometimes it’s not that easy. For many different reasons, some of our Victorian ancestors deliberately tried to avoid being found amongst the records. From bigamous marriages to brushes with the law, avoiding records was a way of life for some of our ancestors. When one of our ancestors intentionally wants to avoid being found, it becomes very difficult, 150 years later, to try and trace their steps, but not impossible.

Sometimes the ‘fact’ is only a ‘fact’ based on the balance of probability. Sometimes we can only find the person that we are looking for by ruling out all the other potential candidates and therefore only leaving us with one possible solution.

Is the name on a headstone, or the dates a fact? These can be notoriously incorrect. Remember the details on a lot of the certificates that we are familiar with, as genealogists is only as good as the informant who is passing those details to the Registrar. The chances are the informant will know the date of death, because it is likely to have been quite recent, but is the birth date necessarily correct on the death certificate?

From 1 April 1969, the UK form of the death certificate was changed with the addition of the date and place of birth of the deceased and, for married or widowed women, the maiden surname. These details can be enormously helpful, but only if they are correct!

Establishing a fact as being correct, is the essence of what we do, as genealogists. Great Grandad’s stories, that have been handed down, from generation to generation, will always have an element of truth to them; it’s our job to pick out and decipher the truth from the records. Yes, Great-Grandad did serve in WW1 and yes he did fight at the Somme, we have his Army records, medal cards, regiment diaries, so we can prove all this. Is his birth date on his attestation papers correct? Probably not; this date conflicts with all the other records that we have for him, so very likely, he lied about his age so that he could join the Army and serve his country. If we only had his Army Attestation papers and nothing else, we could have easily been looking for somebody who was indeed three years older and followed the wrong man entirely, easily done with common names.

It’s a question of evaluating all the facts together. A person is far more likely to remember the day they were born, it’s their birthday after all and something that they celebrate every year! They are far more likely to get the year of birth wrong and therefore their age wrong, especially on Census returns. Therefore we might assemble a birth certificate, marriage certificate, death certificate, 1939 Register, numerous Census returns, plus Army papers, all for one individual, all with slightly different dates or ages. By placing all these documents together and looking at the evidence as a whole, we are far more likely to reach the correct conclusion.

As genealogists we have a lot of ‘tools’ at our disposal to help us to reach our conclusions, we have the records that I have already spoken about, but we also potentially have physical objects at home that can help us to determine the facts. We might have Great Grandad’s war medals, Grandma’s Bible, or maybe some written notes and memoirs. Again, if we add these to the documentary evidence that we have gathered, we are far more likely to reach the correct conclusion.

So examine ALL the evidence before reaching your ‘reasoned conclusion’ and record your findings. That way you will ensure that you are following the correct person and just as importantly, those that follow you will be able to see the evidence of why you reached the conclusion that you did.

Going right back to the beginning, remember the first question that I asked?  “A father’s name on a birth certificate, is that a fact?”  You distinguish fact from fiction with:

  • analysis of sources and informants
  • correlation of evidence
  • resolution of conflicts.

If you have a father’s name on a birth certificate, that is some evidence, but could be wrong. If you have another source that provides the same father’s name to the same person, that is correlation, and it makes a stronger case. 

However, if the second source is, say, a family Bible entry probably created around the same time as birth, it is hard to know if this is an independent informant, since often the person providing information in a family bible would be the same person who might provide information to put on the birth certificate.  

If you can correlate information from independent sources, that makes it more certain that your hypothesis (e.g. about the father’s name) is correct. The more such sources, the stronger case.

The other things to consider are:

  • the position/condition of the informant
  • the nature of the sources.

If the informant is known, and witnessed the event, but they were recounting when they were 90+ years old and the father had been dead many decades, you might worry that the informant’s memory has lapsed over the years.

If what you have is a transcription of a birth record, you might worry that someone had miscopied the name or misread the original handwriting. 

In summary: the strongest case is made using multiple, correlating original records made by known, independent informants.

We can now of course, use DNA to prove this as a fact, but that’s a whole different story entirely!


Paul Chiddicks is a regular columnist and blogger for Family Tree Magazine’s UK edition.  You can access his Family Tree Magazine blogs here: https://chiddicksfamilytree.com/2017/09/30/latest-family-tree-magazine-blog/.  He also is a regular host of Twitter’s Tuesday night “Genealogy Feast” known as #AncestryHour, and a moderator on the very welcoming Forum called “Family Tree Forum” (https://www.familytreeforum.com/). 

Paul is a volunteer “Genie” on @_walkmypast_ and a member of a number of local Family History Societies.  He likes to get involved as much as he can within The Family History Community, consciously trying to “put something back” into the hobby that we all love.  Find him on Twitter @chiddickstree

Thanks, Paul, for sharing with us at MCG!

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