There are often times when a family story can be proven to be incorrect by an official document. There are also times when a family story can prove that an official document is for the wrong individual.
As an example, a date of birth can sometimes be celebrated a day or two late because that is the date when the family was told of the birth. The birth might have happened a day or so earlier, but the date is remembered because the rest of the family were told on the same day as another significant event (maybe another birthday). This is especially true if the mother had no family with her at the time of birth and she was unwell in bed for a time after the birth. The birth may have happened in a remote location, and news of the birth took many days to reach other family members. The date of birth on the official birth registration may be wrong because the birth occurred in a remote location and it may have been a long time before the parents were able to get to town to register the birth. The family may have celebrated the birth on that day for years before learning much later about the official date on the birth certificate.
So, how do we resolve the question of which is the correct date?
Was the official date wrong?
Is the family story wrong?
Which date do we trust and what do we record in the family tree?
What is the Genealogical Proof Standard?
The Genealogical Proof Standard is a process used by professional genealogists to demonstrate what the minimums are that genealogists must do for their work to be credible. Essentially, there are five essential steps for accurate research:
1.. Reasonably exhaustive research has been completed.
2.. Each statement of fact has a complete and accurate source citation.
3.. The evidence is reliable and has been skilfully correlated and interpreted.
4.. Any contradictory evidence has been resolved.
5.. The conclusion has been soundly reasoned and coherently written.
These five steps are an important process to follow whenever doubt exists about a fact. We are normally researching people who have already died so we need to make the best possible assumptions, based on all the evidence. We also need to realise that more evidence may come to light later and we should be prepared to change the conclusion based on any new research.
Ultimately, if we want to be as accurate as possible, then we need to be open-minded about all possibilities. Incorrect dates are known to have been recorded for many reasons over time, such as to indicate that a person was old enough to join the military, to change an age for marriage, and many other reasons when a date was deliberately written in error. Mistakes were also made on official documents, maybe because the individual could not read or write, maybe they told the official the wrong date, or maybe the error was made in the transcription from handwriting to a typed index.
There are many possible ways for errors to occur and the five steps of the Genealogical proof standard are an essential tool to ensure the accuracy of family history records.