Conflicting Census Dates: Determining the Correct Birth Year

By David Fryxell Premium

Q. The 1900 census in Tennessee shows my mother as born in 1895. In 1910, she’s listed as born in 1900. How can I verify which birth date is true? I can’t find a birth record in Tennessee for either year.

A. Our ancestors weren’t as meticulous about dates (or spellings) as we might like, so sometimes such information conflicts. Unless you can find evidence such as a birth certificate or baptismal record (and assuming you’ve examined the original records to verify what they say), your best strategy is to rely on what a court might call a “preponderance of evidence.” Look for other records that provide a birth year: a marriage record, cemetery record, Social Security Death Index, obituaries, later censuses, state censuses (unfortunately not applicable in Tennessee), military records and so on. If most of these sources agree, even with a few outliers, you can assume the most common date is correct.

Lacking additional clues as to your mother’s birth date, you can guess that the record generated closest to the event is more likely to be correct. In this case, it’s unlikely an infant would’ve been misdated as a 5-year-old; the 1895 date is probably correct. 

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