It May Be Etched in Stone, But It Doesn’t Mean It’s Correct

Oh the heartbreak when I realized that one of the types of sources that I believed were inarguable (way back when I was just a wee tot in genealogy) were actually hugely questionable.

I had some preconception that if someone where to etch a piece of information in stone, it HAD to be correct. Why would you preserve it for eternity if it were wrong?

Now, I had by this time come to terms with the fact that census reports were to be taken with a measure of scepticism. Of course, the value of the information depends solely on who the census taker was, if they were actually literate and spoke the same language as the family they were interviewing. Not dissimilar to those validating manifests in the ports. But you had to also consider who answered the door when the census taker came around. What if the only person home was not actually sure, but gave their best guess? Somehow I was able to understand and accept that census reports could add confusion rather than clarify the answer to a simple question, such as “When was my great grandfather born.”

But the heartbreaker? Ah, that was gravestones. I have had some pretty serious debates with my own family about the true dates for birth or death of an ancestor, because one of us would get stuck on the date that was carved in stone. But the reality should have been a bit less earthshattering to understand.

Let’s take my Great Great Grandfather, Patrick Morgan, as an example. He has four different birthdates, between baptismal records, census reports and his gravestone. I would have thought the gravestone was correct, but it’s off by a year. Why? Well, he’d lived a good long life, on two different continents, and whomever it was that actually requested the gravestone was apparently not as sure about his birthdate. Considering that he was born in 1841 and died in 1906, well, it shouldn’t be that shocking that 65 years later the actual date might get a bit fuzzy.

What I have found is that the information etched in stone isn’t always wrong, and most of the time if it is, it’s not that far off…but if what you have to start with is a headstone date and just one census you may find that you are staring down the barrel of a decade of difference, if not more.

Don’t give up, just keep searching for verifiable information. You’ll get there….it just might take a while.

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