This can’t work

I have posted a few times about going back to the original records after looking at transcriptions. Sometimes you may have multiple versions of later transcriptions, or an uncited genealogy may have read the records more correctly than the published transcription, or the original record had a small smudge that has confused later transcribers. While there is certainly value to looking at the original records as they are written, it is good to keep in mind that the original records themselves may also be wrong.

The following example concerns the family of Ebenezer Read, “Jr.” of Uxbridge, Massachusetts. He was the son of Ebenezer and Sarah (Chapin) Read, and was born 27 February 1711 in Mendon, probably in the part that became Uxbridge in 1727. Ebenezer “Jr.” first married Esther Webb at Braintree on 26 January 1736/7; she died shortly afterward. He then married Hannah Torrey (intentions published at Uxbridge 23 December 1738). The transcribed Vital Records of Uxbridge show Ebenezer and Hannah with the following three children, which immediately set off alarms:[1]

Esther Read, born 24 August 1739

Benjamin Read, born 21 January 1739/40

Ebenezer Read, born 24 August 1741

The dates of birth given for Esther and Benjamin are only five months apart, which is of course impossible. Uxbridge church records showed baptisms for Benjamin on 27 January 1739/40 and Ebenezer on 30 August 1741, although no baptism for Esther, who was probably named after Ebenezer’s first wife. The original record of the family shown above clearly lists Esther with a birth in 1739, although she is last. This can’t work!

Fortunately (for me), Ebenezer Read died when his children were still young. He died at Uxbridge on 7 December 1744. As Ebenezer had largely used the suffix “Jr.,” this death date has often been misattributed to his father, who had already died a few years earlier, as his probate administration began on 3 February 1742/3, at which point the younger Ebenezer no longer used a suffix. The probate for the younger Ebenezer (husband of Hannah and father of the three children above), began on 25 December 1744, but as his three children were all minors, much of his land was not partitioned until the 1760s when they reached their majority, although these documents did not address the issue of Esther or Benjamin’s age.

The key documents were the children’s guardianship records. On 2 October 1759, Benjamin was described as about nineteen years of age and Esther as about sixteen years of age. The same document recalls that their brother Ebenezer in September 1755 was then about fourteen years of age. Those ages work perfectly for the birthdates above of Benjamin and Ebenezer, but the age does not work for Esther! If Esther was sixteen years old and was born on the same day and month above, she was born on 24 August 1743, and explains why she was last on the original birth register above.

All in all, this correction was not a huge deal, but another reminder that contemporary records can be wrong, and paying attention to all the children of a couple allows you to see when the birth dates taken together do not work.


[1] Thomas W. Baldwin, Vital Records of Uxbridge, Massachusetts, to the year 1850 (Boston: Wright & Potter, 1916), 124 (births of the three Read children), 295 (marriage intention of Ebenezer and Hannah), 296 (marriage of Ebenezer and Esther).

About Christopher C. Child

Chris Child has worked for various departments at NEHGS since 1997 and became a full-time employee in July 2003. He has been a member of NEHGS since the age of eleven. He has written several articles in American Ancestors, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and The Mayflower Descendant. He is the co-editor of The Ancestry of Catherine Middleton (NEHGS, 2011), co-author of The Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2011) and Ancestors and Descendants of George Rufus and Alice Nelson Pratt (Newbury Street Press, 2013), and author of The Nelson Family of Rowley, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2014). Chris holds a B.A. in history from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.

9 thoughts on “This can’t work

  1. Thank you for sorting this so eloquently, Chris. The dates on tombstones also shouldn’t be taken as (no pun intended) “carved in stone” either. My gggf Hezekiah Conn’s stone indicates he died in Feb 1880 despite being equally clearly enumerated in the federal census in mid-July 1880, a census year in which enumerators weren’t allowed to include deceased HH members. His actual death date was after the census but before the end of July. The discrepency centers on the tombstone death date being all numeric rather than a combination of numbers and letters. The first number is clearly a “2” for Feb, which many descendants including myself believe was a “7” for July in the dates given to the stone carver, but misread as a “2”. Newbies will argue that a tombstone “can’t be wrong” but Great-Grandpa Hez’s is proof that they can!

      1. Wow. Ten years! A friend once battled with distant cousins over the birth date on a common ancestor’s stone in 1600s Massachusetts that indicated his first child was born when he was only 17. They argued that this wasn’t possible and my friend held that it was unusual but not impossible, if the ancestor and the child’s mother were past puberty. She also questioned if the date on the stone was wrong, but cemetery records matched it, so it’s possible it was a case similar to what you describe in your reply – that his recorded birthdate was off by ten years. Thank you for possibly solving a mystery of two decades duration!

    1. Yes, tombstones can be wrong–of my mother’s 7 children, two of our names were misspelled in the engravings. On my birth certificate, her middle name was misspelled. I was always told my dad had no middle name, but his birth certificate said his middle name was Audry–but I believe that was a mistake, as well–just can’t prove it yet. There is no middle name on his death certificate. I can believe he had a middle name, but I would bet he was named after an uncle whose name was Aubrey. I could name lots of so-called official documents that I know were wrong…anytime humans are involved, there is ALWAYS room for error.

  2. My great grandfather and one of his sisters had birthdates in April and August of the same year. Not possible, I thought, until… I discovered this sister was actually his niece, daughter of another sister. Situations are endless!

  3. The published records of Manchester, Massachusetts have a major error in the birthdate for one of my Lee relatives – I discovered this when viewing the original handwritten records on microfiche. The parents names are ones that are repeated often in the family, but this child did not fit. The error? 100 years exactly. He filled exactly a gap in a family whose other children were born every two years.

  4. The information on death records can only be as good as the knowledge of the person giving the information. My grandfather’s death certificate stated he was born in Wellfeet which he was not he was born in Waltham. My uncle uncle (his son) made the mistake. In a death record from an earlier period the mother given was wrong. The informant gave the name of the stepmother, not the mother.

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