Why Read EVERY Word of a Genealogy Document? Case #1

When genealogy documents are transcribed and indexed for us, it is all too easy to write down the information given on the index page and move on.  I mean, the transcription has all of the vital information we could want, right? And of course it must be accurate, right?  And after looking at one document which has all the information we need, we don’t need to find another similar document, right?

Wrong, wrong, and wrong again.

Let me give you an example from a recent experience.  I went to look at a Find a Grave memorial (findagrave.com) for a deceased relative on my tree whom I will call Joseph Smith.  His parents, John and Martha Smith and several of his siblings were listed as having memorials as well.  But when I scanned the list of children, I noticed an Ezekiel Smith also listed as a child.  Wait a minute.  This Ezekiel, I happen to know, is a grandchild of John and Martha Smith not a child.

How did this happen?

Well, if I begin by looking at only the 1940 census, he is aged sixteen and is indeed listed as the son of John and Martha.  An older “sister”, Jennifer, aged 43 is also living in the home.  Based on this record and information alone, I might at first assume Ezekiel is the son of John and Martha. But before moving on to another source for Ezekiel, if I take a closer look at this census page, I might notice something isn’t quite right.  John is aged 65 and Martha is aged 71.  This would mean Martha was aged 55 at Ezekiel’s birth. Not impossible, but not likely.  My mind immediately tells me, Ezekiel is not the child of John and Martha.  So how did he get listed as their son on this census?  Jennifer, the “sister,” is the right age to be the mother of Ezkiel.  Could that be the case?

If I backtrack to the first census in which Ezekiel appears, 1930, I get another picture of the situation. Ezekiel, aged 6, living with Martha and John Smith is listed as the grandson.  Also living in the household is his aunt Jennifer aged 33.  Well, this answers one question.  Ezekiel is actually the grandson of the household.  It is not uncommon to see in census records, for children being raised by family members, to 1) take on the family’s surname if theirs was different and 2) be listed as a biological child of the family.  But you can see why starting with the 1940 census gives a very different picture than starting with the 1930 census.

Remember my automatic assumption that Jennifer might be the mother of Ezekiel? She remained unmarried and living with her parents until at least the age of 43.  It was easy to make this assumption. But this alone is not proof.  So off to search for more documents I went.

And when I found the death certificate for Ezekiel Smith, I hit pay dirt.  His biological mother was listed as Irene Smith who happens to be the older sister of Jennifer.  Irene is listed in the 1910 and 1920 census records as living with her parents, but then she married in 1925, a little over a year after Ezekiel was born.


  • It is important to read every fact on each document you find when researching family.  In many cases, all of the facts are not indexed or transcribed.  For instance–on Ancestry.com or familysearch.org–you are given a  window of some of the vital facts from a census.  Rarely are all of the facts listed in this window. And just as important to note, often many of the facts will have been transcribed incorrectly. Look at the original document to find all of the information it offers.
  • Look at more than one document to prove facts.  Some documents have differing information about the same fact–such as a birth date.  Or in this case, the names of the parents.  Some documents are simply incorrect.  The more documents you have to back up what you know about a person, the closer to the actual truth you will get.

[Because “Ezekiel Smith”  has living siblings and children all names have been changed to protect privacy]

Example of a census document transcription

Clicking on the photo will take you to

the original record on familysearch.org

{note that they recommend you view the document because,

The original may contain more information than was indexed.”}

Look for my family tree on WikiTree at: McBeth Family Tree

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