Research Tip of the Week

Every Tuesday I try to provide a research tip. These are tips that I use daily in my own research to help me be the best genealogical researcher I can be.

This week my tip is in regards to records and fuzzy facts. My genealogy research right now is centered around a man who served in World War II, Fredrick L. Jacobs. I am trying to discover details of his service and the story behind his three purple hearts.

Source Documents

Fred’s records were lost in the St. Louise, Missouri records fire of 1973 which destroyed most of the Army’s personnel records. A request to the National Archives turned up only a sad form letter. I set out to see what I could discover about this interesting research subject.

One of the first details I noticed about my vitals on Fred Jacobs was that his year of birth varied from year to year on his source documents. In this instance I was more curious about the actual year than some…Fred was either 18 when he enlisted for World War II…or he lied to say he was 18 when he was in fact only 17. Sneaky, sneaky!

Primary Vs. Secondary Sources

I used the various source documents I had to determine if Fred was in fact born in 1921 or 1922. Fred’s birth record, a primary source, has been elusive so I have had to use the various documents I do have and weigh the evidence presented with secondary sources.

A source document is considered strongest if it happened at or near the time the event occurred. Birth records are considered the primary source for a person’s birth information. Without a birth record I needed to look at the records I did have located.

Fred Jacobs on the 1930 Census

Weigh Secondary Sources

The first record I have for Fred is the 1930 census. His age correlates with the younger date of birth. The 1940 census too agrees with the age of the previous census. In 1940, just a few months after the 1940 census, Fred suddenly aged one year on his enlistment papers. After his service ended Fred’s year of birth once again reverted to 1922. His headstone reads the year 1922.

Based on these various source documents it seems certain that Fred lied about his age to enlist in the Army for World War II. My research tip of the day is to compare your source documents to understand why there may be distorted facts from one document to another.

Find more on Fred L. Jacobs on my blog about his service during World War II.

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7 replies »

  1. One of my favourite uncles lied and cheekily enlisted at 14 years of age. I have often doubted ages on enlistment papers. I always trust birth records first too. I sometimes believe that people were so busy trying to survive during the Victorian era etc, they genuinely did not know their age.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Prior to a certain point in time age was definitely just a number of little import. People were too busy staying alive to care exactly how many years had passed since their birth and of course birth records can be elusive in many cases. Census records are the most unreliable document for age and place of birth in my opinion with the exception of small children. I give them more weight if the kids are under 10.

      Like

  2. Your analysis makes perfect sense to me. I’ve had situations where someone’s age is different on every census—usually women who magically get younger instead of older. So I rely on the one that’s closest in time to their birth.

    Liked by 1 person

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