We have all found the problem where a person changed their name, whether that is as simple as a nickname of “Jack’ instead of the given name of ‘John’ or something more difficult like a change of surname. The question is, what do we do to ensure accuracy in the family history? How do we decide what is true and false?
Who said what?
Let’s start by considering who the informant was. ‘Who wrote the information’ can be the key to the answer to the mystery. A mother may usually call her child “Johnny” but then use the child’s full name when angry, “John Robert George Smith, you get back here NOW !” Similarly, one branch of a family will call a person by his third given name “George” but another branch will use another name or nickname like “Bob” for the same person. If you can identify “who said what” then the mystery can be resolved.
A parent is the informant on a Birth Certificate
The informant for a birth certificate is the parents, but more precisely, it is the parent who is listed on the birth certificate. There are a lot of reasons why one parent might be the informant – the simplest of which is distance. If the family lived in a remote area in the early days, then the birth registration could have been done by the parent who went to town. This could have been the father if the mother was sick or busy looking after the baby soon after the birth. The father might have registered a name but the mother may have wanted another name, so the usual name may not be the name registered. This is just one example but if you use your imagination you might understand this more.
The individual is the informant on a Marriage Certificate
A person themselves is the informant on a marriage certificate. The individual may not use the same name as the birth certificate for many reasons; one being that it was common for children to have exactly the same name as the parent. I have several generations of Henry Smith in my family. In my case, it seems the spelling of Henry at some stage was modified to Henery after the date of the birth certificate to try to introduce some differentiation. Some families use suffixes like Junior but that obviously only works for one generation. Other families continue the tradition of similar names officially, but then the child is given a completely different name for practical reasons. Sometimes the age on a marriage certificate may be altered a few years, to more closely match that of the spouse, or to raise the age to the legal age for marriage.
What relationship to the deceased was the informant on a Death Certificate?
The ‘norm’ is for an immediate family member of the deceased to be the informant on a death certificate but it could be a friend if no immediate family were present at the time of death. This information is not checked or verified with other records, it is a record of what was told by the informant to the registrar. This raises many issues because the informant might not know all of the details. They honestly inform the registrar of what they believe to be true but the information might be incomplete or plain wrong. The deceased may have a very unique middle name that they hated very much so they never told anyone about it. A deceased may have always used their middle name and never told anyone about a particular first given name. They may have always been known by a nickname, even to close family, so the nickname may be recorded in the records. This makes finding the record to be very difficult because a search for the nickname would need to be done.
Newspaper articles often include information that is wrong and it is difficult to know why because the informant is not known. The reporter may have interviewed a member of the immediate family of the deceased so the article may be true, but if the article was written based on something a third party said then there is a strong possibility for error. This is especially true for events that happened long before the article was written. Many obituaries mention how long the person has been in the area, or the ship that brought them to Australia, but this is sometimes very wrong in newspapers because it is just what the reporter thought to be true at the time. Newspapers also need to fill their columns so they added and edited information to suit their needs.
We need to look at timelines to make sure things progress in chronological order, locations to make sure they are physically possible and consistent as you would expect, and ensure as many facts as possible agree with the overall narrative. Overall, we need to check ‘Who said what’ when considering conflicting information.
Contact us if you have any questions or need any assistance.