Is a Census record or death record better for listing accurate birth years?

+3 votes
Hola amigos (figured I try something besides hey or hello),

I have been really concentrating on my May line (particularly Bernard May (linked below), his wife Bridget and their children) and I found that I have a suggested birth year for Bernard May but there are conflicting ones between the census records and his death record. Is there any concensus on whether or not, one of these is found to be more accurate in the absence of an exact birth date?


WikiTree profile: Bryan May
in Genealogy Help by Michael Hruska G2G6 Mach 5 (51.1k points)

3 Answers

+9 votes
Best answer
Hi Michael,

As you have discovered, either record can be way off.  The reason lies in the fact that both records are often created by a person with indirect knowledge of the actual birth.

In the case of the Death Record, the information often is filled in by a child or spouse of the child. Often the information provided is by even more distant parties who have limited or no information on the actual birth event.

In the case of the Census Record, the information can be filled out by the head of household or a neighbor or a child who happened to answer the door. Then it is further obfuscated by training of the Cenus Taker and their attention to detail.  The Census is nortoious for wide swings in birth years.

In both cases the information for a Birth is a second hand source.  Being provided by persons who have no direct knowledge of the event. Unlike the Death date on the Death Record where they may have actually witnessed the death.  That being a first hand source and thus more reliable.

So neither is good or better but you might need to dig a little deeper and see who filled in the Death Record or determine who the Census taker obtained the information from.  The 1940 Census actually records who provided the information for example. It can vary by year and location.

Thus obtaining additional sources can help you lean toward a likely date.

But if you were to force me to choose, my experience would be to go with the Death Record.  But that is only slightly better than a guess.  You are better off looking for additional sources to corroborate any theories.

And of course a first hand source is the holy grail.
by Michael Stills G2G6 Pilot (394k points)
selected by Mary H.

As a side note.  In strict genealogy, the goal is to prove relationships. So it is possible to prove the connection without a birthdate.  While the birthdate is helpful in sorting out individuals, it is not nessary to prove the date to prove the relationship.  

That is not a reason to not try and get the birthdate but it may let you move on after an exhaustive search.
Thanks, Michael.

Of course, I am looking for a birh record to be certain but I am leaning toward the death record for now because it notes how long he lived for (76 years) and lists his death as on November 28, 1904 so it is fairly certain that if the age is right then he was born in 1828. That's my take although my record is in a list of deaths so it might be off on his age just for that fact.
Yes, you have to work the dates.  And this is Irish Genealogy, so you might tag your question with Irish_Roots a well.  In Irish Genealogy it is important to get the family members and the townlands to nail down the correct family.   I have one Irish situation where if you accept the use of middle names being used as first names then there is almost an identical match between parents and children, name for name.  Except in one family Bernard was the first child and in my family of interest the last child was named Bernard.  This help me sort them out and find the right locations.

You will be an expert soon enough!
I guess it's just the luck of the Irish that's getting me through mess of records and giving me an easy enough path to finding these family members at the moment.
If the Census was filled out by the Mother, then the Childs birth might be vaild.

If the Death Record was filled out by a Mother, then the Child's birth might be valid.

But if you were comparing a Death Record filled out by the spouse of the Child vs a Census Record filled out by a Mother of the Child.  Then I would go with the Census.  So it helps to dig before you guess.  Go with the best likely information provider if you can find that.
I have been married to my wife for 21 years.  I have been doing genealogy off and on since 1980 and diligently since about 2001.  My wife is of Irish descent, all her grandparents were born in Ireland.  But is was not until our trip to Ireland in June of last year that it dawned on me to think of my wife as Second Generation Irish!

I was lucky, I had birthdates and locations for 3 of the 4 grandparents and Naturalization Records for two of them.  Now that is the Luck of the Irish.  Irish Genealogy is fun, but you will lose your hair over it.
+1 vote
Hi Michael,

I did a quick search of Roots Ireland

for Bryan/Bernard May & his wife Bridget McGinty birth records & can find no trace of them in County Sligo for the possible dates on their profiles + or - 5 years.

All the best

by Billy Wallace G2G6 Pilot (211k points)
+1 vote
While it is true, all records of every kind, are subject to error, generally speaking the records recorded closer to the actual event can be closer to the truth.
by Michael Palmer G2G6 (9k points)

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