Friday, July 30, 2010

What Time Is It?

Quebec is a big place, and I knew there were almost certainly many parishes that “could be” Great-Grandfather Joseph’s birthplace. I had found several Josephs in the earlier phase of my research, but I hadn’t had time at Salt Lake City to look in all possible parishes and I had no way to pick him out of the crowd then even if I had found him then.

What I really needed to do was to figure out more precisely the approximate time of his birth.

From the very start, I had kept in mind the cardinal principle of genealogy research: start with what you know and work backwards. So now I set out to pull together every US record that gives his age at various times into a comprehensive list. Simple subtraction could then give me an estimate of birth year, possibly birth month or even exact date. That would enable me to narrow down my search.

Other family members (including Grandpa Henry’s brother Leo Chosa, the youngest of the surviving children) who had tried to track my Great-Grandfather Joseph back to his origin in Canada had failed. Their nephew who claimed to have succeeded had taken his knowledge with him to the grave. Being pig-headed, however, I was still determined to succeed no matter how long the search took.

The obvious place to start is with a death record or obituary if possible, to see what it says about age at death. Not all death or burial records give this information, and I have learned from hard experience that you never know just who provided the information or how accurate it is. (So few people fill out their own death certificates or write their own obituaries after dying!)

For example, I have the death record of a Danish ancestor which gives his birthplace, his age at death, and even the name and occupation of his father, all of which information (except for the birthplace) was, as I eventually proved, absolutely dead wrong. (I think it was a not-very-bright son-in-law who provided that information.)

Thanks to digital editing of Great-Grandfather’s County death record, I now had a legible copy of it which gave an exact age at death (89 years, 1 month, and 29 days) which worked out to a birth date of 9 August 1830. However, I didn’t have a huge amount of faith in that age at death because I knew that Great-Grandmother Henriette’s stated age at death in the county register was just plain wrong. How did I know that?

I had a copy of Great-Grandmother Henriette’s September 1841 baptism at La Pointe, WI, where her birth date was stated as 1 April 1841. Her death (as reported to the state) occurred in July 1903, and the register stated her age as 67, suggesting a birth year of 1836, which was two years before her parents married and five years before the birth date stated in her baptism record. Clearly, the state of Michigan’s register was relying on hearsay and was not to be trusted in terms of calculating birth dates.

However, it was just possible that Great-Grandfather Joseph’s birthday was known to the family and that the day and month were very close to correct even if the year was off. So, I decided to lay out every record I had for Joseph where a stated age was associated with a date. The US census records laid out that way gave me the following information:

1920: not listed, presumed dead (no surprise: I knew he had died in 1919.)
1910: age 79 —> born ca 1831
1900: age 71 —> birth stated to be August 1828
1880: age 48 —> born ca 1832
1870: age 40 —> born ca 1830
1860: age 27 —> born ca 1833
1850: not found, presumed not in the US yet

Well, that didn’t exactly give me the fabled smoking gun, although I certainly was struck by that August 1828 birth date in the 1900 since the county’s death record for him worked out to a date in early August 1830.

You’ll note that Joseph did not always add 10 years to his age between one census and the next one 10 years later, so it was obvious that whoever provided the information for each census was making a guess or estimate. The census records for his wife Henriette (born in 1841) were even wilder:

1900: age 17 —> birth stated to be April 1843 (2 years off, month correct)
1880: age 40 —> born ca 1840 (1 year off)
1870: age 40 —> born ca 1830 (11 years off!)
1860: age 17 —> born ca 1843 (2 years off)
1850: family entry not found

At this point, you have undoubtedly realized, as I finally did, that one record or even one class of records is never enough.

The problem with census records is that you never know who provided the census taker with the information. It could have been either the husband or the wife, it could have been one of the children, it could have been a neighbor, or for all we know the census taker made his own estimate of age based on the appearance of the persons he listed.

After more than three years of genealogical research, I now realized that as a general rule, the earliest records are the most likely to be fairly correct as to age. Why?

Nowadays, the government is always demanding proof of our exact age and/or date of birth, so almost all of us know exactly when and where we were born, and if we made it through elementary school, we can figure out how old we are now. (At a certain age, of course, we’d rather not think about it. But we can do the calculation if necessary.) However, until the 20th century, most people didn’t celebrate birthdays or keep track of their exact age, and many were unable to calculate it. The eldest surviving person in the family group has no one who can tell him when he was born if he doesn’t know it himself.

It’s also easier for you (and others) to keep track of your age when you’re young. Memories are fresher, and a two-year-old simply doesn’t look like a teenager, although a teenager can sometimes pass for an adult. If someone appears with his parents in a census, then, it is likely that his stated age is approximately correct.

Another reason why earlier records are more likely to be correct is that older people sometimes deliberately fudge about their actual age. A wife who is a little older than her husband may not want anyone to know it, so she insists she is a few years younger. In many cultures, the older you get, the more respect you get in the community, so you might tell everyone you are ninety-two rather than seventy-six, and no one might be willing or able to argue with you—especially if yours is a common name.

In Joseph’s case, more information had become available since I had last been concentrating on him.

I found a published list of the the inscriptions on the tombstones in the cemetery where Joseph was buried; the transcriber said Joseph’s tombstone gave his dates as 1812-1921. Naturally I was skeptical as to those dates, since (a) I knew he had died in 1919 and (b) they were so far off from the census records and (c) few people do reach the very ripe old age of 109. In fact, the birth year was wrong—but later on it helped me prove that I did indeed find the correct birth record for my great-grandfather. I’ll tell you about that when we get there.

There was a “Status Animarum” for the mission at Assinins, Michigan (Joseph’s parish) published online. This is a sort of parish census organized by family group. The claim was that it dated from 1880, but it was definitely not the original document: it was typed with a script font, almost certainly on an IBM Selectric typewriter and therefore typed no earlier than 1961. Therefore, it might contain typographical errors or misreadings of original handwritten records.

The original Status Animarum was clearly made between 1866 and 1868 and included some updates made up to 1880, but many families had not been updated. I know this because the youngest child of my great-grandparents in the family list was my Grandpa Henry, who was born in 1866 (other records usually say 1865); the next child, Great-Uncle Frank, born in August 1868, is not listed, nor any of the later children.

Now, my cousin, who had seen the Assinins marriage record before the church fire had destroyed it, had told me that the June 1855 marriage record gave Joseph’s age as 22, suggesting a birth between June 1832 and June 1833, and that the officiant was Frederic Baraga, who had founded both the St. Joseph Mission on Madeline Island in 1835 and the Assinins mission in 1843. In 1855 Baraga was the recently-consecrated bishop of what is now the diocese of Marquette. However, Baraga was still also an active missionary since there was a shortage of priests in the diocese.

The Status Animarum states flatly that Joseph was born in 1833. It also correctly states the birth year for Joseph’s wife Henriette, and for her brother Simon. (Baraga had personally baptized both Simon and Henriette at the mission on Madeline Island.)

Baraga was a remarkably shrewd individual; this suggests that Joseph’s stated age at marriage was consistent with his appearance, and therefore that the marriage age is fairly correct. It might have been off by a few months (since I had a census record giving a birth month in August) or even a year or two; more than that was not very likely. The marriage record and the Status Animarum therefore have great credibility as to the approximate time Great-Grandfather Joseph was born.

The earliest implied birth year on record in the US census was that of the 1900, which stated he was born in August 1828. The latest implied birth year on record was in the earliest census, the 1860, where the implied birth year was 1833, and this was supported by the Status Animarum and the marriage record.

Ignoring the tombstone dates (1812-1921) because they were so much in conflict with all the other records, the gap between the earliest estimated birth year and the latest is 5 years, a relatively narrow interval to search for a baptism record. Even a 10-year interval would have been better than “sometime during the first half of the 19th century”, which is what I started with.

Putting it all together, it was most probable that Joseph had been born about 1832 or 1833, very probably in August; I was strongly inclined to the belief that he was born in August 1833. I now began ordering microfilms of Quebec parish registers again, looking for Joseph Chaussés (or variants thereof) born during the period from 1827 through 1835 to be on the safe side. I concentrated on parishes where I had found Chaussé families during that early trip to Salt Lake City.

And as I pored over the films, I had a strong feeling that Joseph was still sitting up there laughing at me. So one day I told him, “Great-Grandfather, I’m going to find you, even if I have to search every parish register in Quebec.”

I was now able to photograph the records of the most likely suspects, and I expanded my search to the period beginning about 1810 (in case Great-Uncle Frank had, against all odds, been right about Joseph having been born in 1812). Now I followed every married couple I found where the husband’s surname was Chaussé or one of its variants, looking for sons named Joseph. When I found one, I followed him until I found that the suspect Joseph had either died or married or was still in Quebec after mid-century, when my Joseph turned up in Michigan.

My search was much more systematic than it had been before, so it took longer to get through the microfilms I ordered. I kept on with the search anyway, until Great-Grandfather saw I really meant what I had said.

That’s when he decided to relent.

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