Dates in genealogy

Dating events is a key part of any research into a family. We need basic details such as when people were born, married and died. We then seek to establish their occupation and where they lived, from dated records such as directories, censuses, probate records and parish returns of protestations, musters and rates. It can be fascinating to add dates of emigration from ship passenger lists, and dates from military service records. Without such background information the people in our pedigrees have only a name.

Prior to the introduction of civil registration of births, marriages and deaths (see What’s in a date? and Overlap between parish registers and civil registration records), there are some three hundred years of parish register entries to give us baptisms, marriages and burials. Some of the later baptism registers note dates of birth too, as do 19th- and 20th-century nonconformist registers and some Catholic, Quaker and Jewish records. Most headstones in churchyards, chapel yards and cemeteries record dates of death. There are therefore quite a number of useful sources, although they are not all available for any given individual under study.

Sometimes we are working from research previously done by someone else, which will be limited by the sources available to them – although it might be augmented by valuable information acquired from informal sources such as letters, inscriptions in family bibles, notes on the back of photographs and anecdotes from relatives. 

Some of this inherited research will have been entered in genealogical software, which can nowadays be very sophisticated but could be quite basic in the past. A user could enter only information that the software made provision for, so for example baptism dates often had to be entered as birth dates because there was no option. Details for which there was no provision could be entered in a ‘notes’ area, but this would not necessarily be included when the information was saved as a report or exported for transfer to different software – in which case it was lost. Sometimes the space available for recording an event was insufficient to record all the details from a source, so only a truncated version was retained and some of the information was therefore lost. Some software did not provide well or at all for double year dates; see Dates before 1751. Take care with entries dated 1 January in some versions of Microsoft Excel – where only a year was entered for an event and the month and date were left blank by the transcriber, the latter will appear in printouts as ‘1 January’. This unhelpful feature could be dealt with by altering the settings for the spreadsheet, but many users were not aware of this.

It is important – and nowadays possible – to keep every scrap of information found and to keep full details for each person researched, including all dates.