If the data genealogists collected always agreed and was always consistent,
many professional genealogists would be out of business. So would a few
authors. Discrepancies and inconsistencies are a matter of course in genealogical
research, as is dealing with those inconsistencies.
In terms of consistency, genealogical data can fall into one of three
- Entirely consistent, every document providing the same date and place
for each event, with no conflict between sources (the ideal);
- Conflicting, but consistent enough to allow different researchers
to reach the same conclusion;
- Entirely inconsistent and inconclusive.
In your research you may run into discrepancies such as ages listed in
the census that do not correspond with ages obtained from other sources,
birth dates in the family Bible that do not agree with the birth certificate,
death dates on the tombstone that do not match the death certificate,
and so on. There are many reasons for discrepancies. Sometimes you can
determine the reason and explain the difference. Such is the case with
birth or marriage dates "changed" in some records so that the first child
did not come "too early." Different surnames for an individual may be
due to a remarriage by a parent and not the result of dishonesty on the
part of our ancestors or ineptitude on the part of clerks.
But often you will be unable to explain the difference and may never
be able to say with a degree of certainty which date or location for an
event is correct. There are cases where almost every document or record
gives a different age or place of birth and determining which one is correct
can be nearly impossible. The purpose of discrepancy charts is
to summarize the conflicts between different record sources and to indicate
the source for each conflicting piece of data. Using discrepancy charts
will more easily allow you to weigh the evidence.
Sample Discrepancy Charts
The two samples below show how discrepancy charts can help organize any
conflicting information that you may have.
Seeking Birth Information, Case 1
In the process of searching for my great-grandmother's (Ida SARGENT TRAUTVETTER
MILLER) place of birth, I found several different birth localities. One
locale did not appear on any of the other records and even Ida had listed
different places of birth on each of her marriage applications. Some places
had been listed more than once and I soon could not remember what document
had provided what location. After a while, my confusion hindered my research
efforts. While the localities were in close proximity to each other, there
was no "preponderance" of evidence that allowed me to conclude which place
was most likely.
There was no way that I could list the different places Ida was "born"
on a pedigree chart or an ancestral chart (try listing five different
locations for a birthplace!). So, in order to help me possibly discover
the correct place, or to at least keep track of what each document said,
I decided to make a list of all the different localities I had and indicate
what sources had given those localities (and, if known, the informant
on each of these records). In further research, I am using all of these
localities (at least the ones that are specific) with the thought that
maybe some of the places were residences of the family at some point in
time. For Ida, the birth date of 1 April 1874 seems to be correct, since
the majority of records either gave that date or do not significantly
As you can see below, I used several columns for each record. Not all
the sources provided all these pieces of information and in some cases
I estimated her birth date from her age at the time the record was created.
When I did this, I indicated that the birth date is estimated. You can
see that some records provide both an age and a birth date. For the purposes
of this article, some records have been omitted from the chart, citation
information is not complete (although it is important), and the exact
date of the event/record has not been included.
|John TRAUTVETTER death certificate, 1937
|Ida MILLER death certificate, 1939.
||1 April 1874
||Adams County, Illinois
||65 years, 2 months, and 22 days
|Ida's Obituary, 1939
||1 April 1874
||Warsaw, Hancock, Illinois
|Marriage to George TRAUTVETTER, 1898, Hancock County, Illinois
||Ca. 1874/1875 (estimated from age)
|Marriage to William MILLER, 1936, Hancock County, Illinois
||Lima, Adams, Illinois
|1880 Census, Hancock County, Illinois
||Ca. 1873/1874 (estimated)
|1900 Census, Hancock County, Illinois
Seeking Birth Information: Case 2
The second discrepancy chart is for Ida's father, Ira William SARGENT.
In this case, the birthplace, while not overly specific, is at least consistent.
Based upon the records used in the chart, a reasonable birth date estimate
would be between 1840 and 1845.
|Death Certificate, 1916 Peoria County, Illinois
||Ca. 1840/1841 (estimated from age-birth date not stated on record)
|1880 Census, Hancock County, Illinois
||Ca. 1844/1845 (estimated from age)
|1900 Census, Hancock County, Illinois
|1910 Census, Peoria County, Illinois
||Probably Hospital records
|1883 Marriage to Martha PHELPS, Adams County, Illinois
|Adams County, Illinois Poor House Records, August 1907
||"about 63 years"
|Insanity Case, Adams County, Illinois, September 1907
|Insanity Case, Adams County, Illinois, September 1905
The Role of Primary and Secondary Sources
While analyzing conflicting pieces of information, genealogists need
to be aware of the differences between primary and secondary sources.
A source is considered to be primary if it was an original record recorded
close to the time when the event actually took place and the informant
had a logical reason to know the information and was likely present at
the event. A source that is not primary is considered secondary.
Classifying a source as primary or secondary does not comment about its
accuracy. Secondary sources can be correct and primary sources can be
wrong. However, more credence is placed in primary sources for an event,
especially when there are two or more primary sources that corroborate
In some cases, you may not be able to determine who provided the information
and therefore not know for certain if it is a primary or secondary record.
Some records have a place for informant, but many do not. Speculation
about the informant may be necessary, but if you are speculating, you
should indicate this by use of "probable," "possible," or some other similar
In the case of Ida SARGENT TRAUTVETTER MILLER, the sources all listed
are secondary sources for her birth date and birthplace. This does not
mean that they are wrong; however, in this case since they all provide
different birthplaces, some of them are obviously incorrect. It should
be remembered that in some cases, Ida might not have provided the information
herself, or that the informant might have misunderstood the question.
Sources will not all agree, and one source can easily be incorrect. For
this reason, genealogists need to access more than one record or source
where possible and focus on primary sources where available. Unfortunately,
there are times when primary sources are not available and genealogists
are left using a number of secondary sources. There is no birth certificate
for Ida, no baptismal record for Ida, and no Bible record that lists her
date and place of birth (I'd love to hear about it if there is!). As one
researches in the era before vital records, including secondary sources
becomes necessary. For this reason, in this era, analyzing all possible
records is even more important.
The discrepancy charts here have focused on dates and locations, but
maiden names, and names of parents also disagree. Similar charts could
easily be compiled for these facts as well. Again, classifying each source
as primary or secondary is an integral part of the chart.
One Last Important Note
You should never change a source to correct it. If you are fortunate enough
to determine the cause of the discrepancy, or at least be able to explain
it, indicate that in your notes. My grandmother believed she was born in
Tioga, Hancock, Illinois. Her marriage record, application for a social
security number, death certificate, and obituary all list this birthplace.
However, she was not born in Tioga. She was born several miles east of Tioga
in a town called Elderville. Her birth certificate and baptismal record
indicate she was born in Elderville. Additionally, her parents are listed
with an Elderville address in the 1910 Census, a few months before her birth
in September of 1910. The sources where Grandma listed her birthplace are
secondary sources. Her birth certificate and baptismal record are primary
sources. The census record doesn't prove her birthplace, but lends credence
to it being in the Elderville area. Grandma always insisted to me she was
born in Tioga.
Grandma's belief regarding her birthplace should be recorded in with
my notes, either on her family group chart or in her record in my genealogy
software program. There are programs that allow you to enter multiple
places and dates for an event. Take advantage of this capability. Tracking
these different sources and their differing pieces of data is an important
part of the research process.