How do we differentiate between ‘Fact and Fiction’?

A father’s name on a birth certificate, is that a fact?

The birth certificate itself is the ‘evidence’, anything stated on the certificate is then normally classed as a ‘fact’, including the birth date and the father’s name. But what if that information is, in fact incorrect?

How can we determine what is a fact, against what is fiction, against what is unknown, or what is a deliberate lie!

As genealogists, we search for the truth, we look for evidence to prove and disprove a theory, and we look at all the evidence before we reach a reasoned conclusion. But what if the facts are not correct? What happens if the facts that have been recorded are wrong?

Here are two examples:

We could find a gap in the records themselves. A fact recorded in the local civil registration office, that is ‘missed off’ the returns to the General Register Office. We sometimes forget that there are two sets of BMD indexes. The first is the one created and kept at local level by the register office where your ancestor’s birth marriage or death was registered and the second is the national index, the General Register Office Index. The GRO Index is prone to copying errors and omissions. The records held at district register offices are more accurate than those held by the GRO because they have not been repeatedly copied. If a Birth took place towards the end of a quarter, it could take it over in to the next quarter’s registration and even into the following year if the birth was in December! So was Grandma born in 1908 or 1909?

We could find individuals incorrectly named and listed on Census returns. From 1841 to 1901 a pre-printed census schedule was left to be completed by each household. It was then collected by the enumerator who copied the information into an enumeration book. It is these enumeration books that we consult today online and on microfilm. If there was no one in the house who could read or write, the enumerator helped to record the information. Unfortunately, there can be mistakes in the records, as the enumerator would be transcribing the information from the original schedules and could be recording incorrect information from illiterate households, or the households themselves could, of course, be deliberately misleading the enumerator!

So how do we decide which facts are true and which facts are fiction? Sometimes it’s not that easy. For many different reasons, some of our Victorian Ancestors deliberately tried to avoid being found amongst the records. From bigamous marriages to brushes with the law, avoiding records was a way of life for some of our ancestors. When one of our ancestors intentionally wants to avoid being found, it becomes very difficult, 150 years later, to try and trace their steps, but not impossible.


Sometimes the ‘fact’ is only a ‘fact’ based on the balance of probability. Sometimes we can only find the person that we are looking for by ruling out all the other potential candidates and therefore only leaving us with one possible solution.

Is the name on a headstone, or the dates a fact? These can be notoriously incorrect. Remember the details on a lot of the certificates that we are familiar with, as genealogists is only as good as the informant who is passing those details to the Registrar. The chances are the informant will know the date of death, because it is likely to have been quite recent, but is the birth date necessarily correct on the death certificate?

From 1 April 1969, the form of the death certificate was changed with the addition of the date and place of birth of the deceased and, for married or widowed women, the maiden surname. These details can be enormously helpful, but only if they are correct!

Establishing a fact as being correct, is the essence of what we do, as genealogists. Great Grandad’s stories, that have been handed down, from generation to generation, will always have an element of truth to them; it’s our job to pick out and decipher the truth from the records. Yes, Great-Grandad did serve in WW1 and yes he did fight at the Somme, we have his Army records, medal cards, regiment diaries, so we can prove all this. Is his birth date on his attestation papers correct? Probably not; this date conflicts with all the other records that we have for him, so very likely, he lied about his age so that he could join the Army and serve his country. If we only had his Army Attestation papers and nothing else, we could have easily been looking for somebody who was indeed three years older and followed the wrong man entirely, easily done with common names.

It’s a question of evaluating all the facts together. A person is far more likely to remember the day they were born, it’s their birthday after all and something that they celebrate every year! They are far more likely to get the year of birth wrong and therefore their age wrong, especially on Census returns. Therefore we might assemble a birth certificate, marriage certificate, death certificate, 1939 Register, numerous Census returns, plus Army papers, all for one individual, all with slightly different dates or ages. By placing all these documents together and looking at the evidence as a whole, we are far more likely to reach the correct conclusion.


As Genealogists we have a lot of ‘tools’ at our disposal to help us to reach our conclusions, we have the records that I have already spoken about, but we also potentially have physical objects at home that can help us to determine the facts. We might have Great Grandad’s war medals, Grandma’s Bible, or maybe some written notes and memoirs. Again, if we add these to the documentary evidence that we have gathered, we are far more likely to reach the correct conclusion.

So examine ALL the evidence before reaching your ‘reasoned conclusion’ and record your findings. That way you will ensure that you are following the correct person and just as importantly, those that follow you will be able to see the evidence of why you reached the conclusion that you did.

Going right back to the beginning, remember the first question that I asked?

“A father’s name on a birth certificate, is that a fact?”

You distinguish fact from fiction with:

  • analysis of sources and informants
  • correlation of evidence
  • resolution of conflicts

If you have a father’s name on a birth certificate, that is some evidence, but could be wrong. If you have another source that provides the same father’s name to the same person, that is correlation, and it makes a stronger case. 

However, if the second source is, say, a family Bible entry probably created around the same time as birth, it is hard to know if this is an independent informant, since often the person providing information in a family bible would be the same person who might provide information to put on the birth certificate.  

If you can correlate information from independent sources, that makes it more certain that your hypothesis (e.g. about the father’s name) is correct. The more such sources, the stronger case.

The other things to consider are:

  • the position/condition of the informant
  • the nature of the sources

If the informant is known, and witnessed the event, but they were recounting when they were 90+ years old and the father had been dead many decades, you might worry that the informant’s memory has lapsed over the years.

If what you have is a transcription of a birth record, you might worry that someone had miscopied the name or misread the original handwriting. 

In summary: the strongest case is made using multiple, correlating original records made by known, independent informants.

We can now of course, use DNA to prove this as a fact, but that’s a whole different story entirely!

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30 thoughts on “How do we differentiate between ‘Fact and Fiction’?

  1. This is all very interesting. My sister is our family historian. When she finds a new discrepancy she finds it can be tedious going back to see how it changes things she thought were fact, but now must be changed.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Nicely explained! I can’t tell you how many “official documents” I have that I know have a piece of incorrect information. It’s also why I enter even the “wrong” information (with source documentation!) in my genealogy software as alternate information. It lets me keep track of where I’ve seen which “facts.” That lets me evaluate what information (or source) is most credible. Even after deciding, I leave ALL of them in, in case something new pops up, causing me to reevaluate everything again.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Well explained, although the incorrect use of the apostrophe grated with me. The plural of genealogist is genealogists, not genealogist’s, which is the singular possessive form, as in a genealogist’s nightmare.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Love your point – I know my grandfather’s name is “Charley Wilmer” on his birth certificate but after a period of time my great-grandmother decided she didn’t like it and he was then “Leroy” with no middle name at all! No one knew about this until years later when something came addressed to him and he was like… yeah, that’s me. So you can’t always go by those “legal documents” because over time names can change (or they begin going by their middle name).

    Great article as always!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Or in my case my dad, who never talked about his time growing up because he was orphaned by the age of 9. When he passed away in 1988, we (my 3 sisters and I) had to close his business and when going through his safe my sisters found paperwork proving that when he was out of the system (orphanage/fostering system) he legally changed his birth name from Ellis Reynolds Taylor to Alexander John Taylor. We do not know why, we just assumed he didn’t like the name he was given by his parents.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Misappropriated records is one of my favorite gripes about genealogy -with census records the absolute worst, followed by birth certificates (particularly regarding adoptees), naturalization papers and alien passenger passenger lists are my top rants-the other is information written into the family bible and false claimants. I will summarize an example for each category listed :

    As Paul knows, I am an adoptee with a long journey of locating my own history and family that comes with it for many decades. Unlike non-adoptees, most of us who search have little information and have to start literally from scratch.

    1. (US) census data: A few years ago I discovered that my mother and my aunt (her older sister) were listed in 2 separated Census forms in 2 different counties for the state of Ohio in the year 1930.In the Cuyahoga county they were listed as daughters of my grandfather, Péter Duka Head and my grandmother Konstantin Erszébet (Báthory) Duka All names were anglicized and misspelled. In the Lake County record they were listed as daughters of my grandfather János along with his other children. This too was anglicized-badly.

    2. Birth As an adoptee, I have 2 two separate and distinctly different Birth Certificates- one original from the state in which I was born and the other not-so-affectionately known as fraudulent by divisive law which has a different name, and adopters’ names replacing my real parents and no information of where I was born or other information that is customary and usual on the original (OBC) document. Only 12 states in the US give adoptees access to their birth information. Only 2 of them provide certified copies of the original OBC.

    3. (US) Naturalization documents- a holy mess if you are an émigré from an area frowned on by the US-who will do all in its power to ship said person (s) back to their country of origin post haste. INS was very practiced at putting incorrect citizenship to replace the actual citizenship of the applicant(s)-using current geo-political names of nations to replace the actual birth places of the of immigrant. Both of my Magyar grandparents were born in the Kingdom of Hungary -one in 1895 and 1904 respectively with Magyar named as culture, language, and ‘ethnicity’. Yet the US put Roumania as their citizenship.

    The Treaty of Trianon which illegally stripped Hungary of 2/3 of her land and about 3/4 of her population was not signed by the parties involved (leaving Austria and Hungary out of negotiations which stripped them of their territories ) until Dec of 1920. My grandfather Péter arrived at Ellis Island Dec 1920 via Transylvania HU; my grandmother the following year Nov 1921 (from Budapest)

    4. Paternal Bible entries: (a) in 2010 when I had first contact since my early childhood with a paternal uncle, I was told that a brother was born to my father and his 2nd wife. My grandmother has the birth written on a line of her bible. As it turns out, the child now adult was adopted by my father in OH -it is his name on the OH birth index but the man’s true parentage is also noted. The adoption took place three years after my parents abandoned me and my younger sister. (b) another of my paternal grandmother’s bible entries lists a date of marriage for my parents. One large problem: the date was in August of 1941, 4 months BEFORE Pearl Harbor and the day listed in muster rolls puts him on a ship way out in the south China seas. To this day I am unable to find a date or place for the marriage of my very felonious parents.

    Be very careful when researching as an adoptee -and for those NOT adoptees who think they know better than we, just be advised that your certainties will leave you and the misguided adoptee in a lurch. Knowing the family dynamics, its history, its long story will help, and DNA may shed light on areas you know nothing about.

    As my DNA ancestor, Benjamin Franklin, once advised , ” Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see. “

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Far too many documents go through far too many stages of copy, transcribe, transfer stages, which leaves far too many opportunities for natural errors occurring, without those that are intentionally or deliberately falsified. DNA does bypass all of those issues to a certain degree, but that also comes with its own issues. Part of the joy of Genealogy is unlocking the various strands of evidence to try to piece together a picture of what you think might have happened. Sometimes sadly we are left with a hypothesis that although likely, we can’t prove. I absolutely love the Benjamin Franklin quote and will definitely be using that!

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks John, that also takes us down another road where we have to try to work out whether our ancestor deliberately told a mistruth or whether it was a genuine mistake. But that’s a whole different story but can be an interesting journey of discovery trying to piece it all together


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