Can the records lie?

Many beginning genealogists are prone to almost limitless confidence in the metrics found. What’s more – sometimes  ven more experienced researchers are too often tempted to put their faith in discovered records. This is associated with a specific intuition when we subjectively assess the reliability of data contained in documents.

The second factor that leads us to excessive faith is often a lack of patience and a kind of genealogical “greed” – when we want to discover an act about our ancestor at all costs, we are often inclined to attribute truthfulness to the first document we come across, which meets the basic criteria adopted in our search. Then, pleased with ourselves that we finally managed to find what we were looking after, painstakingly searching through the books, we can forget and not notice that in fact a given metric only briefly meets these conditions, but does not exclude the existence of others that would match equally.

However, everyone who pays attention to the reliability of information that they want to record in their family tree, should be very careful. It should be remembered that this is a relatively large responsibility, because often data once established can be taken for granted by our descendants. They will believe that we have diligently approached our own family and probably will not want to verify all these data from scratch – especially when our tree will consist of not tens or hundreds, but even thousands and tens of thousands of people. So let’s keep this in mind if you don’t want posterity to pin us patchwriters and fantasts when they discover they can’t rely on our findings.

And there are many of such pitfalls in metrical registers. We are often only dependent on records – we cannot always verify the records existing there with other types of documentation sources. However, when such possibility arises, it is worth reaching for it.

It all boils down to the fact that entries were, are and will be made by man, and – as you know – it is human to err. Whether a clergyman or a lay person, each of them could have made a mistake when registering. What’s worse – maybe they wouldn’t even be wrong if it wasn’t for the fact that the people who reported the fact to them gave them the wrong names or dates. And did they, in turn, do it deliberately or did they themselves make mistakes? It probably was both ways.

Some records can be very astonishing. For example, what should I think in case from my own family when, among the files from December 1891, I find the death certificate of my great-great-grandmother, and among the marriage records made two months later, in February 1892 I come across information that her daughter got married who was supposed to live with her mother at that time? All other information was correct – that she was a widow, living in a particular village. The only detail that didn’t fit into the story was the fact that two months after her death, according to the records, she was still alive … How to understand it, since the death certificate contained the sentence that the act was only signed after “seeing the descent…”. So what – did they see the deceased, and then she came back to life?

Contrary to appearances, this is not a ridiculous question. It may indeed have happened that someone had already been declared dead, while that person could only be in a seemingly death-like state. That medical knowledge in the nineteenth-century village was not particularly developed, let the records from the books at the time, where the death of a person in the prime of life was described as ordinaria, or “ordinary”, or generic terms such as “dryness”, “death from head ache”, “old age” or “stomach pain”. To this day, I don’t know how it was exactly with my great-great-grandmother, but it could have been just that, when my daughter’s wedding, someone mistakenly wrote down that my ancestor was still alive at the time. Remember that books were often kept in two or more copies, and with the mechanical rewriting of one of such books probably it was not difficult to make such a mistake.

For a beginning genealogist, the rapid aging and “youth” of his ancestors, who in one year were able to be aged in records by ten years, to rejuvenate by five in the next one may be incomprehensible. The maiden names of wives, mothers and grandmothers were regularly mistaken. Bah! – I came across books from a parish where, at the end of the 18th century, entries about women could hardly be considered credible, even though they gave the impression that not only names (if any), but women’s names were entered at random -hit. Similar situations occurred throughout the nineteenth century, although to a slightly lesser extent.

A one-time mistake with the surname, name can be easily understood, but what if everything indicates that a person appears in the records alternately under two or even three names? I faced a case from Greater Poland, where a certain man in the church books was recorded as Adam, while with the establishment of German registry offices from 1874, in documents written in the neo-Gothic script, he functioned as Adolf. Another interesting example is a man born in Kalisz in the mid-nineteenth century as Dezydery, while for the rest of his life he was recorded in the records under the name Izydor. Although these names do not have a common etymology, after reflection you can hear in their sound a certain similarity that could be the reason for this duality. Again, I can use the example from my own family, where my native grandmother, although she got the name Agnieszka, at her baptism, in her youth she called herself Jadwiga for some reason – and so were the letters addressed to her.

So can you totally trust metrics? From the text above it is quite clear that it is not entirely good idea. At least not uncritically and not in every case – always be careful and restrained in assessing as well as flexible in the analysis of read records, remembering the realities of the time and various possible situations. The task of the genealogist is not only to find the records, but also to verify their accuracy sometimes even on several levels.

Bartosz Mikołajczyk

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