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piecing together the evidence

It is well worth the effort of gathering evidence from different historical sources to ensure you have the fullest possible picture of your family history, even if the basic ‘facts’don’t appear to match. Here Donald Davis examines a variety of birth records to see how reliable they are for arriving at the truth

A micro-study of birth-reporting behaviour

In this age of digital bombardment the successful weighing of derivative evidence has become an essential skill for family historians. Every source we find should be weighed for its strengths and weaknesses. When I first started researching my family history I was displeased when multiple records contained conflicting evidence. Today I accept these apparent contradictions.

I would rather record a range of dates, for example, than pretend precision without strong supporting evidence.

Conflicting evidence invites further exploration. It may even shed light on the lives and motives of those involved in the creation of these documents.

Conflicts may reveal otherwise undiscoverable truths about the lives of family long ago.

Before civil registration

Before civil registration and secular records were introduced in 1837 in England and Wales, 1855 in Scotland, 1864 in Northern Ireland and 1869 in Ontario (a Canadian province of relevance to my research as you will see) the earliest appearance of our commoner ancestors in a written record was their baptism. Rarely do these christening records include a date of birth (DOB).

Some genealogical software programs, surprisingly, force the user to assume that a birth and baptism date are the same. Newborns were sometimes baptised privately on the day of birth when it was thought they may not survive but this was rare. Midwives were empowered to baptise when it appeared that the newborn may not survive. Churches typically had one Sunday in the month when those born in that parish since the last such Sunday would be publicly baptised in the presence of their parents and three sponsors.

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About Family Tree

Kick-start your research with the January issue of Family Tree - packed with ideas to help you plan for a great year of family history and inspire you to new discoveries. Get the latest! Our crop of experts talk about upcoming and breakthrough projects they're looking forward to in 2019. Plan your research month by month! Read a genealogist's diary of the past 12 months, and decide what you want to accomplish in the year to come. Hone your research skills! Join in with part 1 in the brand new series of the Family Tree Academy. Each month through the year to come the Academy will give you the chance to get better and understanding and using those all-important family history records. Read Family Tree and become the best genealogist you can be!