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I have found records of the Axel family I am researching in several censuses. In addition, I have death records for both Peter and Sarah, the mother and father of the family. Below I present, in convenient tabular fashion, their ages as culled from the relevant census and death records:

        Peter   Sarah
1900    40      35      1900 Federal census
1905    50      42      1905 New York State census
1910    49      48      1910 Federal census
1915    60      54      1915 New York State census
1920    58      52      1920 Federal census
1922    70              Peter's death
1925            64      1925 New York State census
1930            69      1930 Federal census
1933            73      Sarah's death

While I cannot be certain of who reported these ages in many cases, the 1920 and 1922 dates are most likely due to Sarah: She signed Peter's death certificate, and she was the only person not working outside the home in their household in 1920. So how on earth could her husband have aged 12 years between those two events? And she herself regressed nicely between 1915 and 1920. Merlin would be proud of her!

Both of them were born in Russia and emigrated around 1890, so I don't have any primary sources for their dates of birth. Other than throwing up my hands, how should I interpret these numbers? Which year of birth is a good inference from all of this? Do I resort to plotting regression lines?

Sources:

1900 Federal census

1905 NY State Census

1910 Federal census

1915 NY State Census

1920 Federal census

1922 death

1925 NY State census

1930 Federal census

1933 death

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1  
I'd suggest trying to find the immigration records for their entry into the USA in 1888 before placing too much faith in any of the dates in US records. –  Andy Hatchett Dec 5 '12 at 9:50
    
I don't know, but I think I have their identical twins in my family history, as the progression of those ages looks much like many of mine. –  GeneJ Dec 5 '12 at 22:35

5 Answers 5

When expressed as dates-of-birth derived from the census ages then there's not that much variation - compared to my own experiences anyway:

        Peter   Sarah
1900    1860    1865    1900 Federal census
1905    1855    1863    1905 New York State census
1910    1861    1862    1910 Federal census
1915    1855    1861    1915 New York State census
1920    1862    1868    1920 Federal census
1922    1852            Peter's death
1925            1861    1925 New York State census
1930            1861    1930 Federal census
1933            1860    Sarah's death

Peter's age looks suspiciously like an estimation in 1905/1915, and Sarah's age in 1920 is an outlier that could be a transcription error (worth checking).

Each of these values is an item of evidence from the corresponding source. They should be recorded in tact and not "adjusted" in anyway. The date-of-birth you record for your Person will be a conclusion based on this evidence, and it may change if new evidence emerges.

Without a primary source associated with their births then you have to accept that they may not have known themselves. Hence, no matter what the preponderance of evidence suggests, it may still be untrue.

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I suppose it's possible that they didn't know or didn't care. I've certainly seen record-to-record variation in dates and ages before. But the seemingly sheer randomness of these responses was somewhat surprising. –  Gene Golovchinsky Dec 5 '12 at 18:04

On the basis of this data, I would not attempt to choose a "best" birth year for either Peter or Sarah.

I would simply list:

Peter, born bet 1852 and 1862.
Sarah, born bet 1860 and 1868.

If you could get their immigration record, then you'll get another set of dates to add to the pot.

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What's interesting about these dates is that some of them are quite precise, if not necessarily accurate. Thus the death certificate specifies an exact date; some of the census records specify the month. It's just hard to tell which year it was! –  Gene Golovchinsky Dec 6 '12 at 1:39

Ages are notoriously all over the map for immigrants. They didn't always know exactly when they were born, since they didn't celebrate birthdays as we do now, and they didn't need to know their exact date of birth for identity and legal purposes as we do now.

I would look at the children's years of birth as well, especially the oldest child.

Per the 1900 census, the oldest child was born in 1878. If we assume that's correct, plus assume the parents were at least 18 when they had their first child, that puts their birth at 1860 or earlier. Not saying they had to be at least 18 or that the child's date of birth is completely accurate, but it gives us a reference point.

Interestingly, the 1900 census says that Sarah was age 35 (born 1865), which would mean she was only 13 when her first son was born. While that's theoretically possible, I think it's more probable that the listed age is incorrect. Either she fibbed or it's a mistake.

The last digit of Sarah's birth year in the 1900 census is not written clearly. When I first read it, I thought it said 1860. Then I realized her age was listed as 35, which means the year would be 1865 -- and I do see how the last digit could be a 5. So I'm wondering if the age was written on the sheet right away, or if the census taker went back and filled in the ages later on and misread his or her own handwriting.

Sarah's age at death (73) in 1933 also implies that she was born in 1860.

Peter's age at death (70) in 1922 implies that he was born in 1852. You would need a copy of the death certificate to see who the informant was -- could have been the wife, or could have been one of his children, who may not have known Peter's exact age.

Regarding the 1920 census, both of their ages are off compared to the rest of the census records, so perhaps a neighbor gave the info and just guessed at their ages.

Unfortunately, there's not going to be a definitive answer to this without finding the actual birth records. All we can do is evaluate the evidence and come up with a best estimate.

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The informant on Peter's death certificate was his wife Sarah. –  Gene Golovchinsky Dec 5 '12 at 16:17
    
I am with you on the guess regarding the 1900 census -- that's probably recorded incorrectly. I suppose that the same argument can be applied to any of the numbers, but it seems a progressively unlikely explanation for the entire set of numbers. Assuming the ages of the children are more reliable (and the large number of children places good bounds on any one of them), I agree that having the first child at 13 was extremely unlikely. 18 would be much more plausible. –  Gene Golovchinsky Dec 5 '12 at 18:12

Are you sure that these ancestors are from Russia? I see a strong Irish streak. It is said that the most common response in Ireland to the question "How old are you?" is "Why do you want to know?"

Our insistence that there is something immutable and life-defining about the state of the calendar at the time of our birth is a relatively modern affectation. It makes sense only when there is some definable benefit associated with reaching a particular age (such as the fact that I no longer "work" for a paymaster).

In the times of mass migration, many of those paying for the passage of others set upper age limits on who could travel. It follows therefore that everyone who arrived was under that age (when they arrived). If you "lost" 10 years to board a ship in Hamburg, you could not simply get it back when you disembarked in New York or Sydney. It was far safer to add a bit every few years. The difficulty of remembering how old they were supposed to be later is reflected in census documents all over the world.

Of course, this is a perpetual problem. I have been told that there are young people today who actually lie about their age to get into clubs!

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A more likely response here (Ireland) is 'What is it to you?', or 'old enough!', or just '** off!'. :-) –  ACProctor Dec 5 '12 at 13:55
    
Unfortunately, I cannot compare these ages to the ones given on the ship's manifest, because I cannot find it! What's striking to me is that well after they have arrived and settled down, the ages still fluctuate all over. Of course as @ACProctor pointed out in his answer, the birth year seems more stable: it only varies by 8 years at the end of Sarah's life :-) –  Gene Golovchinsky Dec 5 '12 at 18:08

Looks like they did not keep track of their own ages, it probably just did not matter to them in the scheme of things, in the long run remember life was tough and very busy they may not have spoken or understood the American language very well so just answered what they thought the question was.

We doing this reading need to think of the people and the countries they came from to here and did they even then read and write English at all or just the old country language ??????

What did they speak among themselves their home language I know my husband's German ancestors did use German more than English. And English only when at work unless the others also spoke German say this even in the 1960's in a polish neighborhood I happened to move into the old people spoke polish to each other and to their own family members I only spoke English. It was fun at the corner market but we usually managed to get thru it OK.

We as people of this century forget just how hard English was for these new comers.

cathy O.

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