I have been diligently searching for the birth records of family members like a good, obsessive, compulsive Genealogist. I have scoured page after page of documents, cross referencing names, dates, and locations. I have bypassed the search engines after failing to find what I seek, and scanned thousands of pages of microfilm in hopes that a name was misspelled. I have strengthened the roots of my hair from pulling it and have a metaphorical red mark on my forehead from banging it on my desk.
Birth registration was not compulsory in the United States until the 1900’s. It was the responsibility of the attending physician, midwife, hospital, or parents to register the child. What if those entities dropped the ball and the birth wasn’t registered? Home births were the norm through the 1930’s and I can see a busy (and possibly struggling) family putting off registering or just forgetting. It became a real issue with the formation of the Social Security System, which required proof of birth to sign up and receive benefits. Today, in the year 2016, it is considered necessary to have a birth record to be fully functional within the world.
What does one do when there are no governmental birth records from the past? Look to other documents. Family events were often recorded in the Family Bible. Census records can give clues. Wills, Probate, Land Deeds, Military documents, and Death records are other sources. Gravestones can also be helpful.
What if the generally accepted date of birth for a family member isn’t confirmed by a birth record? What if there are several different dates among the other documents?
Such is the case of Helen Roetman Winn. By all accounts, her date of birth was January 1, 1892… almost 9 months to the day her parents were married. This is confirmed by several census reports and her marriage license. Her death certificate, with information given by her husband, states her date of birth as January 1, 1891. Her gravestone gives her date of birth as the year 1890.
Helen could have indeed been born in 1892. She could have been a ‘Honeymoon Baby’. Or she could have been born in 1891 and told she was born in 1892 to make an illegitimate birth look legitimate. Her father did come from a strong Dutch Reformed heritage where pre-marital relations were severely frowned upon. Or the date of 1891 on the death certificate could have been a typo or mis-information from a grieving spouse. The gravestone could have been placed later by someone that only had a generalization of the year of birth. They ’rounded it off’.
Another case is Ruby Ruth Roetman, otherwise known as Hellen Louise French Cole. Ruby was adopted at an early age by a Spinster, Lillian French. Miss French changed Ruby’s name and the day and month of her birth to the date she was adopted. Hellen grew up not knowing there was another date until later in life.
So which date do we accept? I have come to the conclusion that it is the one that is repeated the most often and believed to be true. Unless we can go back and talk to the mothers who gave birth and listen to actual accounts of their experiences, I think we have to err on the side of belief until that belief is either validated or disproved.
I also have to accept that maybe some of the ‘truths’ are not for our generation to discover. Despite this, I continue to search…