Age old problems and comfort zones

Alicia Crane WilliamsIn my last post, I left Abigail (Smith) Carey in a Black Hole with conflicting information about her age. Age discrepancies are a common cause of Red Flags and avoiding them requires an understanding of such things as the average age at marriage for men and women in the time period with which you are dealing, the childbearing ages of women, legal ages, etc. I’m not aware of a single source that provides a good overall summary of these questions – let me know if you are.

There are any number of academic studies in print, but for the most part we gain a sense of “normal” from our own research. I am “comfortable” with an “average” age of between 18 and 22 for a woman to marry for the first time and for men of between 25 and 30. I am also comfortable with woman having children between ages 18 and 45. This just sets parameters. Whenever an event falls outside of these parameters, I am keyed to take a second look.

Sometimes the flags are just “pink.” In Abigail’s case, if she was born in 1800 and married Harry Carey in 1816, she would have been 16, which is certainly possible, just less common.  If she was born in 1795, she would have been 21, which is unexceptional. This limited information would tend to steer us toward the older choice.

But other times the differences are more pronounced. Let’s say we have no more census records to compare Abigail (Smith) Carey’s age, so we go back to 1850 and see that the younger children in the family at that time were aged 10, 7 and 5. The last was thus born about 1845, when Abigail (b. 1800) would have been 45, all within our comfort zone. But if Abigail was born 1795, she would have been 45, 48, and 50 when these children were born. Not impossible, but very uncommon. From this limited information, we would tend to suspect that her age in the 1850 census (55) is incorrect and so lean toward the younger choice.  Isn’t genealogy fun!

The point being that we have to pay attention to everything when we’re trying to fill in those Black Holes. Let’s try identifying Abigail from a different angle – geography.  What if John Smith and Mary Brown lived in Barnstable but Abigail Smith and Harry Carey were married at Sandwich?

Alicia Crane Williams

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia is the lead genealogist on the new NEHGS study project, Early New England Families, 1641-1700. Prior to joining the NEHGS staff, she compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant, the Alden Family Five Generations project, and the Harlow Family : Descendants of Sgt. William Harlow (1624/5-1691) of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University. In October 2016, Alicia was elected a Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists.

10 thoughts on “Age old problems and comfort zones

  1. My wife’s grandmother was married at age 13, in 1904, to grandpa who was 21 at the time. They had 10 children, first 5 boys, then 5 girls for a total of 10 children and grandma was 35 at the birth of the last child.

  2. New York, 1800-1850 seems to be my black hole for at least four of my family lines. St. Lawrence County here I come. I hope travelling there will open some doors that seem nailed shut!

  3. For anyone with either a JSTOR passor access to a very good university library, The Journal of Inter-Disciplinary History has been addressing vital records issues in terms cohorts in various cultures for over 30+ years. One of the early articles was on how effective the propagating message of no-sex-out-of-welock from the pulpits & general cultre was in keeping bastardy very low in Early Modern England. Would that the Society could get a general JSTOR access pass for members to that journal as well as NEQ, William Mary Quarterly, Journal of American History, etc. And make ’em Searchable!

    Of course, the pioneering work of the Cambridge Group published as The World We Have Lost covers the 1580 to 1660 period in England in various sub-regions and I’ve never heard of any major issues re its data development outcomes–first time I ever saw a Family Data sheet turned into a dynamic, snapshot tool for analysis for individuals and groups. All that raw data and old fashioned printouts is just stored away in England, unaccessible by us Gen folk at present. A real “drat”.

  4. As to defaults/parameters, I’ve decided “from my own reading” of Anderson, etc. for the 1600-1650 NE period that the safest thing to do is use “by such & such a date” for woman, and if the FKC is born in September 1638 (calculated from age given on gravestone), then the couple m. no later than December 1637 with the bride being no younger than 18 IF Known First Time Marriage. Anderson uses 20 years for women, I believe, and either 22 or 25 for men, just not sure as I type. I go with 25 years to cover the extra years needed to accumulate assets to maintain the new household.

    Once you get past 1650, the age at FKM shifts upwards for both men and women. See Greven, Four Generations, also In English Ways, etc. Still, using 25 as “b. say by 1653 [if m. at 25]” would, I think, still be acceptable.

    Of course, be CLEAR about that in your presentation.

  5. Hi Alicia!
    Your articles are so very informative and many of them are also quite personal to me! I am a retired Branch Manager and I volunteer at the local genealogy library. I had to really try to not giggle yesterday when a patron came in with a New England ancestor who lived from 1727 to 1747 ….but she was still having babies into the 1780’s ….according to someone’s online “tree” which the patron took as gospel. It all ended well…
    So you are a wonderful mentor…but your name kept me very puzzled. How do I know Alicia Crane Williams? It was so familiar to me…but when one peruses hundreds if not thousands of surnames a week….what do you expect?
    Then it hit me….when my daughter and I had an opportunity to visit the wonderful Alden House in Duxbury about a year ago the first thing we were asked: “Are you descendents?” We replied that we thought it was probable but I was having a rough time finding records of the family after the 5th generation. I was familiar with the “Silver Books” and the lovely docent then asked me to show her our “entry” (in more ways than one). Our poor little Electa Grinnell is listed with her twin Asenath and even with a week in Saybrook CT very little information about EG and her husband, Joshua Lewis came to light. But I remembered that is where I heard your name! They suggested that I join Alden Kindred and maybe the files would have some clues.
    I couldn’t do it! It was a matter of pride to have better information….and a miracle of sorts happened. On a NEGHS newsletter last Fall there was a link to the DAR GRE records. Five minutes later I was pretty sure that I had a source for the Lewis Bible records! I ordered them…and I joined Alden Kindred because the Bible showed bmd from Electa and Joshua down to my very own great grandma….and I knew her!
    So I just reread my AK newsletter and realized that you have taken a new exciting job and that was another place that I had seen your name.
    So I am looking forward to getting a lot of work ahead when your successors have time to read my application. Mostly excited because none of this info seems to be anywhere in a correct form.
    Heaven knows, maybe the Lewis Bible records have been forged!
    Enough of this…you can see that genealogy is fun for me…and I only came to it after I retired four years ago!
    Best wishes on your new responsibilities….
    Donarita Priddle Vocca
    Pinellas County FL

  6. Hi Donarita, Actually I still have your Alden file here on my desk among the papers that I’m trying to finish! Life is busy, but I’ll try to get your official papers done as soon as I can. I’m glad you are having fun with the genealogy and thank you for the complements on the blog. I’m having fun with it and am glad that the posts are helpful.

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