Problems of age

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The next Early New England Families sketch to be uploaded, as soon as it clears review, will be for John Fuller of Cambridge. I am still nit-picking at it before sending it out to one of my volunteer readers.[1] Mr. Fuller kept dropping complications – beginning with the date of his family’s arrival in New England and moving on to his age, birth places of children, identification of their (in several cases three) spouses, and other annoying details.

The last annoyance, I hope, has been figuring out when he was born. His date of death appears in the inventory of his estate as 7 February 1697/98. According to the published town records of Newton, his gravestone in the Centre Street Cemetery listed his age as 87. Unfortunately, his stone does not survive. A replacement stone in the cemetery appears as if it had a space carved out to hold an original, broken stone, no longer there.[2]

Normally, we tend to depend on an age carved into a gravestone as fairly accurate – always excepting such cases where the stone mason carved the wrong number (after all, how can you erase a gravestone?). If John was 87 when he died in 1698, then his birth year would have been 1611, but other sources seem to make that date too early. Without the gravestone, we cannot tell whether the Newton vital record abstracted the age correctly.

Without the gravestone, we cannot tell whether the Newton vital record abstracted the age correctly.

If John was born in 1611, he would have been 12 years older than his wife, whose baptism is on record in January 1623, and he would have been age 34 when his eldest child is purported to have been born in 1645. Not impossible, but we also have five ages he gave for himself in testimony at the Middlesex Court between 1656 and 1673. These ages convert to birth years of 1614, 1615, 1616, or 1617, with an average of 1615.4. The earliest calculation for his birth is before 2 April 1614, per his testimony in 1673.

If he was born in 1614, he would have been about 84 at his death, a number that might easily have been mis-transcribed from an old stone as 87. This would make him 9 years older than his wife and 31 at the birth of his eldest child. Not a big difference, but it seems more satisfactory.


[1] A much overdue thank you to my two volunteer proof readers: Robin Mason of Bedford, Massachusetts, and Gordon Adams of Sacramento, who cheerfully make up for this author’s ofttimes misguided grammar and punctuation.


About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.

14 thoughts on “Problems of age

  1. Alicia – are you assuming, or do you know, that his wife was baptized on or close to her date of birth? I have family members who were baptized many years after their birth.

    1. Howland, it is an assumption since “most” baptisms were for infants. The citation is “England Births and Christenings, 1538-1975,”, database, FamilySearch ( 10 April 2021), Elizabeth Cole, 1623,
      her siblings were all baptized at about 2-3 year increments 1612, 1614, 1617, 1620, 1623, and 1628, so I think it is safe to assume they were all infant baptisms. Delayed baptisms usually show up when multiple children are baptized at the same time.

  2. Alicia – how well did 17th century people know their age? Essex court records for Edmund Grover, for example, list his age as “about 62” when deposed. His Beverly death record reads “about 82 y.” This makes it difficult to tie him to a particular England birth record.

    1. Phil, I believe all legal documents used the “about” age so that it couldn’t be disputed down to the day. Somebody with legal expertise might know. People probably had a fairly good idea of their birth, but some may not have had the ability to calculate an age. Plus we all sometimes use the year when stating an age, not figuring in whether it was before or after a birthday.

      1. I was thinking the age mattered in cases of minor children and their choice or assignment of guardian upon death of father, and then, next, 21 date of receiving inheritance if any.. Other than those what was a specific age required for? Wondering if birthdays were not noted or celebrated?

  3. Dates on gravestones are not always accurate. Case in point is the all-numeric d.o.d. for one of my gr-gfs who died in late July 1880. The first number (for the month) is clearly a two for Feb, yet he was just as clearly still very much alive in the 1880 census taken in early July 1880, in a year enumerators weren’t allowed to list HH members who died in the previous six months. Many descendants agree the stone carver misread the first number 7 (for July) as a 2 (for Feb), a simple but in this case critical mistake.

  4. Another cause of inaccurate dates on gravestones is the placement of the stone long after the death. There are 2 cases of this in my family.

    1. Much more recently than the example you’re dealing with here, my great-great-grandmother’s gravestone listed her death year as 1899 when it was actually 1909!

      1. It would be interesting to know in these situations whether the family/undertaker gave the wrong date to the stone cutter, or the cutter couldn’t read their handwriting, or mixed up two different people.

  5. Alicia, who was responsible for recording a death in Massachusetts townd from the beginning of the colony through the 19th century? Was it the town clerk or the minister, or nobody in particular?

    1. The Town Clerk would record the civil marriages. The minister would record the church marriages. Or sometimes nobody would record anything. Depends on how organized the town and church were.

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