Adventures in Genealogy

Adventures in Genealogy
The Last Word

It might seem odd to introduce this first article with the subtitle The Last Word,
but it is hoped that this will become an ongoing, and hopefully informative, series of articles on genealogy.
Memorial Inscriptions. We’re all aware of the precious nature and genealogical value of inscriptions found on family gravestones. Even when those stones are very old and the days of mourning are long over, they continue to hold a special place in the hearts and minds of any who investigate their past. A pioneer ancestor’s gravestone may even have true historical significance to the community or area in which he settled. However, family researchers should ask one question. Are these gravestones always accurate?

No doubt family members today would have a fit if there was a mistake made on a newly erected gravestone, but was that always the case? One would think that they would preserve for posterity only trustworthy information. After all, they are “carved in stone” so to speak. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. I personally have seen dozens of mistakes on gravestones of members of both my own family and the families I have researched. Let’s look at a few examples of the kind of errors that family researchers should watch for and why.

On my mother’s side I have an outstanding example of the kind of error one would never expect to find on a memorial inscription. The family name in this example is BARKER, and on a census record I found that one of the children’s names, although very difficult to read, was “Eva May.” Obviously, Eva May was female and the census said so. I proceeded to obtain her civil birth record and found that Eva May was indeed the name of a girl born to William and Mary Barker. Eva died soon after the census record was taken and I found that her death record also clearly corroborated the fact that she was known by the name Eva May. Three records that agree usually provide sound basis for ongoing genealogical research. To confirm, and hopefully enhance, Eva’s information further I needed to visit the family grave site in Queensville Cemetery, Queensville, Ontario. Inexplicably, her inscription on the family gravestone reads “Everlan,” a singular name that is decidedly masculine! If I had relied on the family gravestone alone I would have assumed that “Everlan” was an infant boy. Imagine my surprise that the monument maker had preserved my Great Aunt’s name as a male! It was even a name that, until then, I had never noticed elsewhere. How could this happen? And why was this misinformation left on the family gravestone? Was it really the inscriber that made the mistake? Let’s move on to the next example and we’ll return to these questions later.

I visited another old cemetery in the town of Keswick, Ontario. Many of those who are buried there are in some way related to me. So, it was no surprise to find a stone belonging to one Rebecca Morton, a pioneer settler and ancestor of my father. Her small, modest gravestone said that she had died “July 28th 1875”. At my next opportunity I looked for her death record at my local LDS Family History Centre. I could not find it. Sometimes, but not often, there was in fact no death registration made and so I resigned myself to the fact that I would never find it. Quite a while later I was looking for something else at the Family History Centre. I was going through a reel of death records for 1873 and passed by a “Rebecca Morton.” Whoa! I wound back and found that “my” Rebecca Morton had died “July 28th 1873”! The innocent little gravestone said she died in 1875! It was off by two years. And obviously the civil death record predates the stone so it has to be right. The death record also stated that Rebecca was 98 when she died. How could a gravestone record the wrong date of death? At least in the previous example they got that right!

Rebecca Morton’s gravestone
photographed by Janet M. Hartmann 23 July 2004
The answer for why such profound mistakes appear on revered family gravestones is likely the fact that often a gravestone was not erected for a few years. Even today it is routine to allow ground to settle after an internment for about a year. In olden days the family might wait until they could afford to put up such a stone. It might have been decades until one was erected. Many internments have been left without benefit of a grave marker entirely. Memory can fade and transcription errors can be made so that when the monument maker finally begins to fashion the stone’s inscription he has the wrong data at hand. We can even imagine him being given the vital information in poor, perhaps barely legible, handwriting. He could easily make a mistake and not even know it. The end result might have been a grave monument that the family was unhappy with, but what could they do? Would the family head have it dug out? Surely not. They would need to have a marker to locate the grave site anyway. If they did have it removed how would they return it? In some cases the stone may have come from many miles away in a distant town. Would the maker gladly provide a new one? Not likely. No, often these errors were allowed to persist out of necessity, even if the next of kin knew there was a mistake.

Have families knowingly allowed mistakes, or misinformation, to appear on grave monuments? Well, I don’t know, but my Pioneer Ancestor’s gravestone makes me wonder. It is certainly a very informative thing. It reads:

Aug. 21, 1860
Æ. 61 y’s.
Native of Co. Derry

John Johnston’s gravestone
photographed by the author in March 1997
When I found this monument in March 1997, it was, at that point, the biggest discovery I had made in my family research. Because it plainly stated what county in Ireland our family hailed from it seemed most precious. It also remains the only known record of what actual day in August of 1860 John passed away. Initially, I had no reason to doubt any of what this monument said. Certainly it has John’s name and date of death right! And I knew that almost all records state that he was from Ireland. Really, now, it is only John’s age at his time of death that I am agonizing over. Brace for a conundrum. Notice the inscription indicates that John was born in 1799. There are three other records that give an age for John, two of which refer to his age at death. Records such as these can, if they conflict, mislead one as to exactly when the subject was born. Let’s consider his listings in census records first. Census records are notorious for having mistakes in them (that’s another column!), and the 1851 Canada West (Ontario) census is one of the most problematic. The 1851 census was actually taken in early 1852. To complicate matters further it is unique in that it lists an individual’s “Age next birth day.” John’s entry states that he was going to be 50 sometime in 1852 (or very early in 1853). According to this, his birth would have been in 1802. It should be noted that a researcher should be wary of age listings in census records that could have been rounded off to a five or ten year total. Should John’s age have been more than 50 so that his birth year would have been somewhere between 1799 and 1802? The 1861 Canada West census shows an unnamed individual who died during the last year that must refer to John. His age is listed as having been 60 when he died. This may be another instance where the age of the individual was rounded off to the nearest five year interval. However, if true, an age of 60 in 1860, would neatly place John’s birth in the year 1800 and very close to what the gravestone indicates. So, we have two sources that corroborate almost exactly, the 1861 census entry, and the gravestone inscription, plus one from a possibly untrustworthy 1851 census that isn’t really off by that much. Because there was no obit for John and civil death registration did not begin in Ontario until 1869, it seemed I had done all I could. I was happy with the idea of John’s birth being “circa 1800” and chose to believe the gravestone that it took place in 1799. Everything seemed fine.

Then serendipity stepped in and led me to one of the most important sources, next to that of John’s gravestone itself, for my Johnston family history. In the July 20, 1910, edition of the Alpena Argus newspaper of Alpena, Michigan, I found a lengthy biographical sketch on one of John’s sons: Thomas B. Johnston. Tom cooperated with the writing of the article and it included the “Parental lineage of T. B. Johnston, as far as he can correct the record:”. The next paragraph continued:

“His father, John Johnston, was born in June, 1805, in the county of Derry, Ireland, and he was
by trade a marble cutter. He died in August 1860, in the county of York, Ont., aged 55 years.”

Here was welcome information, all one could ask for, but it was quite at odds with what John’s gravestone said. It also went against the census data, that in the main, corroborated with John’s gravestone. Was this article to be believed instead of all the other data I had painstakingly gathered? However, it was, and is, the only known record that specifically states a birth date for John; June 1805. At first I didn’t want to believe it, but then for innumerable reasons, I slowly came to think that it might just be true. John’s gravestone, which does contain precious information, might not be right about his age.

Experience has shown me that the most common error found on gravestones and in obituaries, death records, census records, etc., is that of a higher age given for the family head and father. Was it sometimes deliberate? Who can say? But I know of one man’s obituary that states that he had wished to reach the age of 90 years before passing. Deliberate or not the obit said he did just that. Actually he was 86. I think anyone who lives past 80 is especially mighty. There may have been the wish among remaining family members to enhance that mightiness. It doesn’t hurt anyone, but it does make family history research more challenging. The other day I overheard some researchers saying how some of these “Irish guys” gave all sorts of ages on their records, some varying by 15 years. I have fellow from Ireland whose age varies by 10 years. I have no idea why. Didn’t these people know how old they were? In fact I know of one case where the whole family came over without parents and it is patently obvious that none of them knew exactly when they were born. In another case there is a direct quote from one fairly important gentleman that he thought he was born in 1785 or 1786! If the individual didn’t know what date they were born, how can we expect to find an accurate age on their gravestone? Even if they were around to speak for themselves, they could still get it wrong! Times have changed and it can be hard to imagine that people may not have known these things about themselves. So, the upshot of all this is that a responsible family researcher should dig for as many sources to confirm, or even disprove, a record such as a gravestone… and then dig again. Don’t just copy the gravestone and leave it at that. Compare records. Evaluate them. The old adage that you should never believe what you read seems to hold true, sometimes even for gravestones, which have often been perceived as The Last Word.

Joe Johnston
Ottawa, Ontario
January 2004
revised 17 December 2004

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