How do I handle when headstone gives birth & death, but every census lists different ages?

+4 votes
Trying to determine my Great, Great, Great Grandfather Alfred A. Smith 's birth and how to enter.  His headstone  has full birth and death dates of Alfred A. Smith from Pittstown, Rennselaer County New York.  Birth May  1828 - Death June 20, 1900.

1865 New York State Census shows he was 27 y.o., which would put his birth in 1838.

1870 NY State Census lists his age as 40!?  He aged 13 years in a five year time period.  

The 1850 Town of Hoosick census lists his age as 20, which would make his birth year 1930, vice 1928 as noted on headstone.

The 1860 Federal census lists his age as 29, which would make his birth abt 1830, vice 1828 on headstone

How do you handle that?
in Genealogy Help by Loraine Smith G2G Crew (430 points)
Census ages are sensitive when people fill out the census paperwork. The records are not always completed at the same time each census, so the estimates vary somewhat depending largely on whether the person was born early, mid, or late year. Errors in census taking can also fudge it by up to several years. Also, not everyone is honest about their age or consistent. Many people the further back we go are also illiterate or innumerate, so they honestly don't know.
Usually the earliest documents are the ones to which I give more credence.

A grandfather in our tree gave his age as ten years younger at his second marriage to a much younger woman, so that incorrect age is on his death certificate and on his headstone. That age would have made him 5 years old when he married the first time! We have DNA confirmation to substantiate the early census documents as his family.

I have noticed, in consecutive cencuses, women's ages getting younger by a couple of years, and suspect that was a vanity issue.

4 Answers

+6 votes
Hello, Loraine!

Personally, I will take "written in stone" dates over any age data from census document!!

Even though ANY type of source can contain incorrect information, census documents seem to be especially rife with incorrect ages. You should consider them a low-end resource for age data at least.
by Lindy Jones G2G6 Pilot (214k points)
Sometimes a headstone can be incorrect as in the case with one of my great grandparents. I'm using the birth date which is in a family Bible record and also one other source. My great grandparent was the first child born in Orillia, Ontario. The parents moved there in 1833 and the tombstone has a birth year of 1832. I'm going with the other two sources which have it 1834.
The age data actually tends to be accurate. The data focuses on the immediate state of the present, and the dates of people's birth vary widely, and the times at which people participate in census vary widely. You can actually often bracket a person's birth date by the collective census data across their lifetime. People born in the early year will have a signature error bias one way, and people born in the late year will have a  signature error bias the other way. That variance can be measured and you can get a precisely bracketed range for their birth date.

Outliers are generally going to be evidence of other kinds of errors like transcription errors or gross innumeracy.

Gravestones are converse to this really. They tend to be really precise, but they aren't necessarily accurate.
+4 votes
You are at the mercy of the person that gave the answers on the census. Sometimes they just guessed at the correct answer.
by Doug Lockwood G2G Astronaut (2.4m points)
+3 votes
Two sisters in my tree -- they married brothers -- seemed to, ahem, modify their birth dates so they appeared to be younger.  They also changed the location of their birth from Cape Breton (Nova Scotia) to England.  But their death records were more accurate.  

I've also seen some very surprising and disappointing changes in spelling, but I've learned that the enumerators did the best they could; they recorded what they thought they heard.  Regarding my French ancestor Sophia Boutilier -- her name was Anglicized and written as "Butler".
by Janine Barber G2G6 Pilot (172k points)
+6 votes
Be sure to look at the actual census (or image of), if its available. Often its transcribed (and indexed) incorrectly, and the handwriting can often be more obvious to humans than to computers.
by Dennis Wheeler G2G6 Pilot (536k points)
Yes! I always go to the image and add the date on the page to the Census information in my Ancestry Tree. It gives a more accurate residency date, as well.

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