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Tips for Reading Old Records: Dangerous Dates and Word Meanings

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Where Does the Time Go?
There are a few tricks to interpreting older records that most genealogists will need if they go back far enough. This article covers the phenomenon of double dates, and also explains the differences in current and archaic usage of some crucial relationship terms.

If you've ever looked at records that were created several decades ago, particularly before the turn of the century, you know that they aren't always easy to understand. Handwriting styles were different and people weren't always particular about spelling and punctuation. You'll even find that the boundaries of countries, states, and counties changed, so that your ancestors' records could be in different offices even though the family never moved! In the first part of our series, we'll look at issues you might find with dates, and also how the meanings of relationship words may have changed.

Dangerous Dates

Calendar Switch and Double Dates
Beginning in 45 B.C., many parts of the world used the Julian calendar to mark the passage of time. By the Julian calendar, March 25 was the first day of the year and each year was 365 days and 6 hours long. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII determined that the Julian calendar was incorrect: each day was just a little bit too long and the human calendar wasn't keeping up with nature's calendar. To solve the problem, Pope Gregory XIII created what is known as the Gregorian calendar. This new calendar changed the first day of the year to January 1 and also jumped ahead by 10 days to make up for the lost time.

The practice of double dating resulted from the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. Not all countries and people accepted this new calendar at the same time. England and the American colonies didn't officially accept it until 1752. Before that date, the government observed March 25 as the first of the year, but most of the population observed January 1 as the first of the year. For this reason, many people wrote dates falling between January 1 and March 25 with both years, as in the following examples.

Julian or Old Style Gregorian or New Style Double Date
December 25, 1718 December 25, 1718 December 25, 1718
January 1, 1718 January 1, 1719 January 1, 1718/19
February 2, 1718 February 2, 1719 February 2, 1718/19
March 20, 1718 March 20, 1719 March 20, 1718/19
March 25, 1719 March 25, 1719 March 25, 1719

By the time England and the colonies adopted the new calendar, the discrepancy between the calendars was eleven days. To resolve the discrepancy, the government ordered that September 2, 1752 be followed by September 14, 1752. Some people also added 11 days to their birth dates (a fact which is not noted on their birth certificates). You should also watch for dates that are recorded as double dates even after all calendars had officially switched. People sometimes accidentally wrote double dates.

Marriage Banns and Intentions
Church records often list the date on which a couple makes the announcement that they intend to marry. These are called marriage banns. In addition, you can find marriage intentions, which were non-religious public announcements of the couple's intention to marry. Don't misinterpret the dates of marriage banns and marriage intentions as the actual wedding date.

Death and Burial Dates
Church and cemetery records often contain the date of the funeral in addition to the date of death. Don't confuse the burial date with the date of death.

Date Formats
When you look at records from other countries, you should be aware of the date format that they use. In the United States, we normally write dates with the month first, the day second, and the year last. For example, we write October 15, 1970 as 10/15/70. However, many other countries reverse the order of the month and day. They write October 15, 1970 as 15/10/70. Since there are only twelve months in the year it is often easy to tell which date format was used because one of the first two numbers is greater than twelve, as in the example above.

If neither of the first two dates is greater than twelve, it is harder to tell which format was used. For example, April 3, 1970 can be written as both 4/3/70 and 3/4/70. If you run into this problem, take a few moments to look at other dates in that group of records. You should eventually run across a date where one of the first two numbers is greater than twelve, and then you'll know the answer to your question.

Wily Words

Some of today's most familiar words had different meanings previously, and the change in meaning quite often occurred in words referring to social relationships. For example, the word "cousin" often meant niece or nephew; and the title "Mrs." could show high social status, not necessarily marital status. There are a few other relationship terms that you should look out for:

  • The terms "niece" and "nephew" spring from Latin words which meant "granddaughter" and "grandson," so you may find them used in that context.

  • When we use the words "junior" and "senior," we normally think of a father and son relationship. However, in the past, these words were used much more liberally and could refer to an uncle and nephew, or even to two people with the same name who were unrelated.

  • The words "brother" and "sister" also were used in different ways. Members of the same church often referred to each other as brothers and sisters, and a married couple would refer to their brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law just as brothers and sisters.

  • If you see "good brother" or "good sister," the creator of the document wasn't playing favorites. It's just another way of saying "brother-in-law" or "sister-in-law." You might also come across "good son" or "good daughter" which are "son-in-law" and "daughter-in-law."

  • The term "in-law" can also cause problems. In the past, "in-law" relationships could be either step relationships or the regular in-law relationship that we think of today.

  • An "infant" didn't necessarily refer to a babe-in-arms. In many cases, this meant that the person in question was a person under legal age.

Misunderstanding and misinterpreting these terms can really twist the branches of your family tree, so when you're reading older records it is important to be cautious. When it is possible, verify information with other records. This is the best way to make sure that you have the correct information. In addition, look at the rest of the language in the document. The more arcane terms and spellings you find, the more careful you should be.

There's More to Come!

Stay tuned for future installments of this series, when we'll cover handwriting, spelling, and boundary changes. The more you know, the easier it will be to climb your family tree.

About the Author
This article was written by staff.

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How-To Article: Guidelines for Reading Old Documents
Step-by-Step Guide: Name and Word Spellings
Step-by-Step Guide: Deciphering Handwriting

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