A Source by Any Other Name

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare

What matters is what a source is, not what it’s called or categorized as.
But, you say, what about sources called birth certificates, for example. They’re a great primary source.
Or, are they…

Everyone knew that my grandmother, Rita, was one year older than my granddad, Louis Rockett. She was born in 1911, and he was born in 1912. No big deal. He was taller, so it evened out.
I never saw her birth certificate until years after she’d passed away, and I was documenting my lineage so I could get in the Daughters of the American Revolution society (D.A.R.). Her birth certificate shows her name as Rita Hall and that she was born March 13, 1911. Great! I have a primary source documenting the dates and info I need from the state Health Department. This is etched in stone, right?
Upon further inspection, though, I noticed at the top it said “Delayed Certificate of Birth”. Hmmm. I don’t remember all the details but it seems like some states didn’t require birth certificates until a certain year or some birth certificates had been destroyed or damaged. Anyway, this certificate was notarized and filed in 1959. Forty eight years after her birth. Hmmm. I also noticed that it has her signature, her mother’s signature, and her sister-in-law’s signature (the latter was the notary). Totally cool. Very different. But, it’s from the state Health Department, so it’s all good.
As I got more serious about documenting sources, and joining more societies, I started hanging out at the Archives. That’s where I discovered census records, a wonderful primary source. I love census records! My first discovery with a real source was with a census record. Good times! So, I’m looking up every surname I have on the 1910 U.S. Census, and I get to the page showing my grandmother’s Hall family. Hey look! Here’s her dad James, her mom Vienna, her sister Nona, her brother Cecil, and an infant named Xylda Marie who wasn’t even 1 year old. Hmmm. There were only 3 kids in her family. When I started asking my family what they knew, turns out grandmother always hated her name Xylda Marie and insisted everyone call her “Ree” or Rita. OK. Name solved.

BUT LOOK AT THE YEAR! It’s 1910. Grandmother was born in 1911, right? Maybe, the census taker was wrong or accidentally put a neighbor’s child on the line with the Halls. (A stretch, I know, but I had a birth certificate from the state Health Department. Right?) So, I’m combing over this document and noticed who the census taker was: James N. Hall. That’s right. Her dad!

Now, I’ve got 2 primary sources with conflicting information. Which one do I think is right? The census. Which one holds weight as the source to most people? The birth certificate.

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2 responses to “A Source by Any Other Name

  1. The census is more correct because it is closer to the actual event. The birth certificate is a delayed return filed years afterwards so it is further away from the event. I would “trust” the census record more, hands down!

  2. That’s pretty funny about the dad being the census taker. In that case, you can be sure all the kids’ birthdays were wrong!

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