18 July 2011

Organize the Inconclusive with Discrepancy Charts

This originally appeared on Genealogy.com nearly 10 years ago and was written by me.

(note--this post does not use current definitions of primary and secondary--we no longer classifiy sources as primary or secondary, these terms apply to information only)

If the data genealogists collected always agreed and was always consistent, many professional genealogists would be out of business. So would a few authors. Discrepancies and inconsistencies are a matter of course in genealogical research, as is dealing with those inconsistencies.

In terms of consistency, genealogical data can fall into one of three categories:

  1. Entirely consistent, every document providing the same date and place for each event, with no conflict between sources (the ideal);
  2. Conflicting, but consistent enough to allow different researchers to reach the same conclusion;
  3. Entirely inconsistent and inconclusive.

In your research you may run into discrepancies such as ages listed in the census that do not correspond with ages obtained from other sources, birth dates in the family Bible that do not agree with the birth certificate, death dates on the tombstone that do not match the death certificate, and so on. There are many reasons for discrepancies. Sometimes you can determine the reason and explain the difference. Such is the case with birth or marriage dates "changed" in some records so that the first child did not come "too early." Different surnames for an individual may be due to a remarriage by a parent and not the result of dishonesty on the part of our ancestors or ineptitude on the part of clerks.

But often you will be unable to explain the difference and may never be able to say with a degree of certainty which date or location for an event is correct. There are cases where almost every document or record gives a different age or place of birth and determining which one is correct can be nearly impossible. The purpose of discrepancy charts is to summarize the conflicts between different record sources and to indicate the source for each conflicting piece of data. Using discrepancy charts will more easily allow you to weigh the evidence.

Sample Discrepancy Charts

The two samples below show how discrepancy charts can help organize any conflicting information that you may have.

Seeking Birth Information, Case 1
In the process of searching for my great-grandmother's (Ida SARGENT TRAUTVETTER MILLER) place of birth, I found several different birth localities. One locale did not appear on any of the other records and even Ida had listed different places of birth on each of her marriage applications. Some places had been listed more than once and I soon could not remember what document had provided what location. After a while, my confusion hindered my research efforts. While the localities were in close proximity to each other, there was no "preponderance" of evidence that allowed me to conclude which place was most likely.

There was no way that I could list the different places Ida was "born" on a pedigree chart or an ancestral chart (try listing five different locations for a birthplace!). So, in order to help me possibly discover the correct place, or to at least keep track of what each document said, I decided to make a list of all the different localities I had and indicate what sources had given those localities (and, if known, the informant on each of these records). In further research, I am using all of these localities (at least the ones that are specific) with the thought that maybe some of the places were residences of the family at some point in time. For Ida, the birth date of 1 April 1874 seems to be correct, since the majority of records either gave that date or do not significantly contradict it.

As you can see below, I used several columns for each record. Not all the sources provided all these pieces of information and in some cases I estimated her birth date from her age at the time the record was created. When I did this, I indicated that the birth date is estimated. You can see that some records provide both an age and a birth date. For the purposes of this article, some records have been omitted from the chart, citation information is not complete (although it is important), and the exact date of the event/record has not been included.


Birth date




Source Type

John TRAUTVETTER death certificate, 1937Not givenAlexandria, MissouriNot given Secondary
Ida MILLER death certificate, 1939.1 April 1874Adams County, Illinois65 years, 2 months, and 22 daysHospital RecordsSecondary
Ida's Obituary, 19391 April 1874Warsaw, Hancock, Illinois65 years Secondary
Marriage to George TRAUTVETTER, 1898, Hancock County, IllinoisCa. 1874/1875 (estimated from age)Iowa23 yearsProbably IdaSecondary
Marriage to William MILLER, 1936, Hancock County, IllinoisCa. 1873/1874Lima, Adams, Illinois63 yearsProbably IdaSecondary
1880 Census, Hancock County, IllinoisCa. 1873/1874 (estimated)Iowa6 years Secondary
1900 Census, Hancock County, IllinoisApril 1874America26 years Secondary

Seeking Birth Information: Case 2
The second discrepancy chart is for Ida's father, Ira William SARGENT. In this case, the birthplace, while not overly specific, is at least consistent. Based upon the records used in the chart, a reasonable birth date estimate would be between 1840 and 1845.


Birth date




Source Type

Death Certificate, 1916 Peoria County, IllinoisCa. 1840/1841 (estimated from age-birth date not stated on record)Unknown75 yearsHospital recordsSecondary
1880 Census, Hancock County, IllinoisCa. 1844/1845 (estimated from age)Canada35 years Secondary
1900 Census, Hancock County, IllinoisMarch 1843Canada F.57 years Secondary
1910 Census, Peoria County, IllinoisCa. 1841/1842Not listed68 yearsProbably Hospital recordsSecondary
1883 Marriage to Martha PHELPS, Adams County, IllinoisCa. 1842/1843Not listed40 years Secondary
Adams County, Illinois Poor House Records, August 1907Ca. 1844Canada"about 63 years" Secondary
Insanity Case, Adams County, Illinois, September 1907Ca. 1843/1844Not listed63 years Secondary
Insanity Case, Adams County, Illinois, September 1905Ca. 1838/1839Canada66 years Secondary

The Role of Primary and Secondary Sources

While analyzing conflicting pieces of information, genealogists need to be aware of the differences between primary and secondary sources. A source is considered to be primary if it was an original record recorded close to the time when the event actually took place and the informant had a logical reason to know the information and was likely present at the event. A source that is not primary is considered secondary.

Classifying a source as primary or secondary does not comment about its accuracy. Secondary sources can be correct and primary sources can be wrong. However, more credence is placed in primary sources for an event, especially when there are two or more primary sources that corroborate each other.

In some cases, you may not be able to determine who provided the information and therefore not know for certain if it is a primary or secondary record. Some records have a place for informant, but many do not. Speculation about the informant may be necessary, but if you are speculating, you should indicate this by use of "probable," "possible," or some other similar word.

In the case of Ida SARGENT TRAUTVETTER MILLER, the sources all listed are secondary sources for her birth date and birthplace. This does not mean that they are wrong; however, in this case since they all provide different birthplaces, some of them are obviously incorrect. It should be remembered that in some cases, Ida might not have provided the information herself, or that the informant might have misunderstood the question.

Sources will not all agree, and one source can easily be incorrect. For this reason, genealogists need to access more than one record or source where possible and focus on primary sources where available. Unfortunately, there are times when primary sources are not available and genealogists are left using a number of secondary sources. There is no birth certificate for Ida, no baptismal record for Ida, and no Bible record that lists her date and place of birth (I'd love to hear about it if there is!). As one researches in the era before vital records, including secondary sources becomes necessary. For this reason, in this era, analyzing all possible records is even more important.

The discrepancy charts here have focused on dates and locations, but maiden names, and names of parents also disagree. Similar charts could easily be compiled for these facts as well. Again, classifying each source as primary or secondary is an integral part of the chart.

One Last Important Note

You should never change a source to correct it. If you are fortunate enough to determine the cause of the discrepancy, or at least be able to explain it, indicate that in your notes. My grandmother believed she was born in Tioga, Hancock, Illinois. Her marriage record, application for a social security number, death certificate, and obituary all list this birthplace. However, she was not born in Tioga. She was born several miles east of Tioga in a town called Elderville. Her birth certificate and baptismal record indicate she was born in Elderville. Additionally, her parents are listed with an Elderville address in the 1910 Census, a few months before her birth in September of 1910. The sources where Grandma listed her birthplace are secondary sources. Her birth certificate and baptismal record are primary sources. The census record doesn't prove her birthplace, but lends credence to it being in the Elderville area. Grandma always insisted to me she was born in Tioga.

Grandma's belief regarding her birthplace should be recorded in with my notes, either on her family group chart or in her record in my genealogy software program. There are programs that allow you to enter multiple places and dates for an event. Take advantage of this capability. Tracking these different sources and their differing pieces of data is an important part of the research process.

This originally appeared on Genealogy.com