Which sources are most accurate when you have conflicting birth dates?

+10 votes
I have 3 different birth years listed in 4 different sources for my Great-grandfather Perl Price Smith. Death Certificate lists 1875, Social Security Death Index is 1876, and WWI Draft Registration Card is 1877. Any ideas as to which of these, if any, might be more likely to be accurate? By the way, on Find a Grave, the picture of the headstone says 1875.
WikiTree profile: Perl Smith
in The Tree House by Living Whipple G2G1 (1.3k points)
The only way to know for sure is to find the birth registration. I assume births are registered in America?
Thanks to everyone who answered my question. You have given me a lot of good information and ideas. It's nice that so many people are willing to help and I won't wait so long before asking something again. I appreciate all of you. Thanks again.

4 Answers

+9 votes
Best answer
Information on a U.S. death certificate is usually reported to the funeral director by a close relative, though it could be a nursing home, if the person had no close relatives.  The birth information is not verified by another source, so it is relying on the person who reports it, and they may only know an approximate age.

The person who reported the birth information for the death certificate is likely to be the same person who ordered the headstone, so I usually do not consider these to be two independent sources of information.  Same for the obituary (if there is one), because the source, agaain, is likely to be the same person.

It is likely that the person provided his own birth date on the draft registration card.  He would be likely to know his own date of birth. However, there is the possibility tat he exaggerated his year of birth to qualify for the draft - I've seen that for a couple of my relatives.

The date of birth on the Social Security Death Index is likely to be the most accurate.  The date of birth is not reported to the Social Security Administration after the person's death - it comes from information provided when the person applied for his Social Security card.  In the case of your great grandfather, that was likely in 1936, when the cards were first issued.  I can't vouch for the verification of the data in those early years, but I know that since at least the 1960s, the Social Security Administration required an adult to present a U.S. birth certificate or a U.S. passport, or some equally strong source or sources.  However, the SSDI is an index, so it is a secondary source.  If you are looking for better proof, since you have the the Social Security number, I would send a request to the the Social Security Administration to get a copy of his application for a the Social Security number (SS-5 form), which will definitely give you the most accurate date.  As a bonus, it will give you his address at that time, place of birth, names of parents, and his signature.
by Star Kline G2G6 Pilot (737k points)
selected by Living Whipple
+7 votes
Death Certificate, gravestone, and SSDI were created by someone else after his death. The draft registration card at least has a chance that he filled it out. Although they can be wrong also.

Make a note: If you're going to link to Ancestry, at least link to the item itself, not to the search page.
by Anne B G2G Astronaut (1.4m points)
Thanks Anne. I am a newt and still trying to figure things out here. I wasn't sure what you meant, but went back and was playing with sources and figured it out. So, do I need all that info listed, or just the link? Definitely a work in progress, but I want to get it right so will go back and fix them. Unfortunately, I used Family Tree Maker for years so Ancestry is where a lot of my sources were. Am trying to get away from them which is why I am glad to have found Wikitree.
Too much information is better than too little. You need the info, not just the link. Links break, & Not everyone has access to Ancestry.

What's at Ancestry. -

Citation Information: Birth date: abt 1876 Birth place: Pennsylvania Residence date: 1 Apr 1940 Residence place: Sparta, Crawford, Pennsylvania, United States; Year: 1940; Census Place: Sparta, Crawford, Pennsylvania; Roll: T627_3476; Page: 4A; Enumeration District: 20-46.; 1940 United States Federal Census; Ancestry.com; Online publication - Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012.Original data - United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1940. T627; Ancestry.com;

I change to:

United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1940. T627; Census Place: Sparta, Crawford, Pennsylvania; Roll: T627_3476; Page: 4A; Enumeration District: 20-46.;

The first section covers who created the record and where it's kept. The second section covers the specific place, page etc. I'm thinking as I look at it name of the person might be helpful also.

The Family Search citation for Census is much less complicated and covers everything also.

There are some examples on the help page http://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Sources

Glad you want to get it right.
+6 votes
I am from the U.K and have little knowledge how your social security system works, but if I was in your shoes I would look at it this way.

1) headstone most likely has been carved from birth certification information, which of course could have been estimated by the person who certified his death, if it wasn't personal knowledge.

2) From the army records here that I have seen they also tend to estimate or range cast dates. i.e. if you were born between october and the following march you could have been classified as a year older than you actually were.

3) Social security records are usually accurate because what government wants to pay out a year earlier than necessary.


That's the way I would do it from this side of the pond :)
by Wendy Sullivan G2G6 Pilot (162k points)
I'ld go with the one he filled out himself although I've seen that wrong also.

I try to replace all my Ancestry sources (use Family Tree Maker as well) with sources from FamilySearch or some other free web site. It's a little more work but doesn't rely on a subscription to access.
+2 votes
He had 2 younger brothers in the 1880 census.  The ages given aren't necessarily precise.

I'd investigate the brothers.  I'm not seeing vast numbers of Smiths in Pennsylvania, though there was another Hiram around the same date.  Could Ritner be the same person as Writner Horacio Smith?  If so, other records date him to 1877.
by Living Horace G2G6 Pilot (650k points)

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