Taking Back What Was Once Lost

Lie To Me

Records lie to us. The very records we depend upon to reconstruct our families, lie all the time.

This 1900 census for my gggrandmother Hannah Harbor stated that she was widowed:

Hannah Harbor, 1900

But her former husband was alive and well; he had just left her for another woman. I guess I wouldn’t want to say that either.

This 1920 census  shows my ancestor Ada Seaman happily ensconced with her family:

Ada Seaman Family

But she had died in 1918. She could not have been in the household in the year 1920, unless they were living with her ghost:

Ada Seaman Death Cert

This Maryland ancestor remembered my gggrandmother’s name was Margaret (Simpson), wife of Levi:

Maria Howard Death Cert

Close. But it was Martha. Margaret was Martha’s stepmother.

Ferdinand Holt migrated to the great city of Indianapolis in the early 20th century. He filled out a World War II Draft card that proclaimed his birthdate:

Ferdinand Holt, WWII

But he wasn’t born in 1895. He was born in 1887. It was correct on his World War I Draft Card:

Ferdinand Holt, WWI Draft

Oddly, the actual day (Dec 6) stayed the same, even though the year changed by 8!

Records lie. Records manipulate and deceive. The only way to be sure that what we are recording is accurate is to correlate each piece of evidence and closely examine every document and rationally explain any conflicts. Every document has the potential to contain inaccurate information. Viewing records in isolation and accepting what they purport as true can’t be our practice.

I only show a few examples above, but those examples kept me going in the wrong direction for years.  It is only by researching many different document types (census, vital records, deed records, court records, military records, bible records, etc. etc.) that we can we begin to form an accurate picture of our ancestor’s lives and flesh out the data that is incorrect.

So, what documents have been lying to you?


  1. October 24, 2012    

    LOL! I could not agree with you more and I must say that I feel and share your sentiments exactly when dealing with census records. But as one of your previous post states, it is so important for us access the original documents and thoroughly analyze them line by line and make note of the inconsistencies that we find. I have a similar situation going on right now. So I’ve stopped the presses and have ordered copies of other records so that I can make more accurate decision about my findings. Great post!

  2. October 25, 2012    

    Oh, I could not agree more! My mother’s death certificate gave her “improved” birth year, not her real one, which I learned only from talking with my cousin and finding the 1920 census when she was 5 years old. She wanted to be a year younger, so she just declared a new birth year. And her real birth year came just before vital records started in SC.

    I don’t even take census ages (and inferred birth years) seriously any more! They wobble all over the place, from one census to the next. People change the surname spelling, in my family, all through the 1800s and early 1900s. On my own birth certificate, my father’s middle name has a new creative spelling. My father’s co-workers at the Veterans’ Administration had a saying, “Good enough for government work.” That’s what we’ve got with so many of these records . . . we take them with a grain of salt and negotiate a likely “truth” among all of them.

    By the way, I don’t have a wordpress blog, I just joined wordpress to make a comment on your blog. My blog, in case you want to know, is http://mariannregan.authorsxpress.com. My name is Mariann.

    Thank you for this so-true blog. So clearly illustrated!

  3. October 25, 2012    

    Excellent Post! I can totally relate to this. Like you said, you have to look at multiple sources to get a proper sense of what was accurate your ancestor.

    • msualumni's Gravatar msualumni
      November 1, 2012    

      Thank Andrea! I’m still trying to sort out more of my “lying” records;)


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About Me

I blog, teach, write and lecture about family history research and it's just as rewarding today as it was when I began 18 years ago. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my past and I've taken back--reclaimed- my kin and some of that lost memory.  

Post History

What I Talk About

Locations and Surnames

Hardin, Chester and Lawrence Counties, TN
Holt, Barnes, Harbour, Bradley Springer and Fendricks
Lawrence County, AL
Springer and Fendricks
Montgomery County, MD
Prather, Simpson
Somerset County, MD
Waters, Fountain, Curtis
Duval and Madison County, FL
Smith, Harris, Garner

Favorite Family History Quotes

"The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past."
-William Faulkner

"Call it a clan, call it a network, all it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one"
- Jane Howard

"Friends are God's apologies for relations."
-Hugh Kingsmill

"No matter what you've done for yourself or for humanity, if you can't look back on having given love and attention to your own family, what have you really accomplished?"
-Elbert Hubbard

"Families are like fudge; mostly sweet with a few nuts."

"If you can't get rid of the skeleton in your closet, you might as well make it dance!"

"Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city;)"
-George Burns

"Where does the family start? It starts with a young man falling in love with a girl. No superior alternative has yet been found."
-Winston Churchill

"The great gift of family life is to be intimately acquainted with people you might never ever introduce yourself to had life not done it for you."
-Kendall Hailey

"If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all the generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people."
-Thich Nhat Hanh