May 30, 2020

Records often have puzzling mistakes

I’ve been looking at birth, marriage and death certificates for three decades now, and it’s funny how some things don’t really register at first.

Let’s take my own birth certificate from the 1950s – make that the very early 1950s.

It says that I was born in Dover-Foxcroft to parents who were from Sangerville – doesn’t it?

Not quite. It gives my mother’s address as North Main Street in Sangerville, but nowhere on the certificate does it ask where my father resided. I never noticed that.

It included middle names for both of them, color, age and birthplace for both.

My father’s occupation and “kind of business or industry” were included, but there was no space to indicate whether my mother had an occupation or place of business.

It did give a space to indicate that it was a single birth, rather than a twin or triplet.

And it was marked that my mother had signed approval of the record.

I remember filling out – and signing – the forms for my own children’s births in the late 1970s. Of course I got all the information right – for the most part.

I was careful to spell my husband’s name G-a-e-l-e-n on our first son’s birth certificate.

By the time our second son was born three years later, I, the genealogist, had obtained my husband’s birth certificate and found that it recorded his name as G-e-a-l-e-n.

So I was careful to use that “correct” spelling of his name on the second birth certificate.

Only later did I stop to think that 1) the two certificates now don’t match, technically, and 2) my husband never spells his name that way, anyway.

To add to the confusion for future generations, my older son’s middle name is spelled G-a-y-l-a-n-d after my dad – not my husband.

The certificates that more often have outright mistakes, of course, are death certificates. The reasons for that are 1) the person giving the information is far removed from the deceased’s birth information, and 2) the informant, usually a family member, is answering questions just after the death, when the bereaved don’t really have the best memory.

When my great-great-grandmother, Agnes Bray Eldridge, died in 1929 in Fairfield, her husband was already deceased. Her birthplace was correct – Windham, N.Y. – as was her mother’s name, Mary.

But her father was listed as Elwin Bray. He was actually John Bray. That’s verified not only by census records of Agnes’ family in 1850 and 1860, but by a transcript of family notes left by her mother, Mary.

The most beautiful penmanship on a death record was the 1911 certificate for Agnes’ husband, David Eldridge, who died in Foxcroft. (The two towns had not yet joined as Dover-Foxcroft.)

Yes, he was born in Canaan, but his parents weren’t David Eldridge and Sarah Cane. They were Daniel Eldridge, as census and cemetery records show, and Sarah Coan.

These days, many people give their own statistics to the funeral director when they pre-arrange their funeral and burial. Not only are they sharing their own information, but they’re likely far less rattled than a relative would be after the death.

Some physician’s names recur throughout family records.

The doctor who delivered me went on to sign the death certificate three years later for my great-great-grandmother, Mary Lord, in the same town where I lived.

Maine death certificates in the last few decades often list as many as three contributing causes of death, plus there’s an extra line for “significant conditions.” You may find useful information you will want to share with your own physician.

One certificate for a female relative who had dementia for many years in the 1970s made note of the fact that she had had a mastectomy. Since she had lived in a state hospital for many years and died in her 90s, I give the doctor credit for making note of a condition that was obviously so many years in the past.

Here’s a talk you’ll want to catch. John Albertini will speak on “From Paper to Digital” during the next meeting of the Penobscot County Genealogical Society at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 16, in the Lecture Hall on the third floor of Bangor Public Library, 145 Harlow St.

Those attending will learn about using genealogical software to keep track of relationships and help keep up with the piles of documentation that go with being a genealogist.

“If you ever thought of doing family research, this is a golden opportunity,” program director John Van Dyke wrote. “As always, everyone is invited to attend. You don’t have to be a member. There will be refreshments, too.”

Send genealogy queries to Family Ties, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor, ME 04402; or e-mail queries to

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