Saturday, February 27, 2010

Information Found Within Civil War Pension Files

In my last installment, I analyzed the various ways a Union Civil War veteran or his dependents were eligible to receive a pension. Today, I’ll briefly discuss what you may find when you delve into your pensioner’s records.

Several variables dictate the number and types of records you may find inside pension files. These variables include the following:
  1. The original filing date.
  2. The person who originally filed for the pension.
  3. The outcomes of the filing.


As I have seen numerous Civil War pensions over the years, I have discovered that there are certain elements that are consistent based upon when the pensions were filed.

Wartime Pensions

Veterans’ pensions that were filed during the Civil War tended to have less documentation than later pension applications. If the unit was still in the field, it was relatively easy for the claimant to have a commanding officer provide documentation of the nature of the soldier’s wound or death. Often this documentation was the deciding factor whether a soldier, sailor, or marine qualified for a pension based upon injury or if a serviceman's death was war related. 

The value of the wartime pensions include descriptions of the events that were close to the time of occurrence. Later pensions often require more documentation. The proliferation of accounts may have several accounts that conflict with one another and may not be correctly remembered twenty years after the fact. In addition, those who may have better testimony of the event may be difficult to find or may even be dead in the years following the war.

Unless it is a dependent’s pension, there probably will not be too many references of genealogical importance as it will not be necessary for the soldier to file information regarding his family. That does not mean you shouldn’t seek out these pensions, as surprises can be found in any record.

One such widow’s pension record yielded church membership information that directly conflicted with published histories about the soldier. At least five published volumes reported (and several emphatically) that the soldier in question was a Quaker pacifist; however, pension records indicated that he was actually Lutheran. Records from the local Lutheran congregation confirmed and documented that he was raised as such from the time of birth and was active as a Lutheran throughout his early life.

Unlike others in his father's family, he was never a Quaker. This assumption grows stronger with each published account of his life.  The earliest account has him living with his uncle and attending a Quaker school - this not only was possible, but probable as well.  From this early reference, others have the soldier standing in front a of Friends Meeting renouncing his faith so he might go to the battlefield.  Although it is a great piece of literary characterization and hyperbole, it is also a work of fiction as it is far from the truth.

Post War Applications Filed under the General Act prior to 1891

These pension files tend to be the most complete records, as documentation was critical in establishing an applicant’s eligibility. In addition, if the veteran was married and had dependent children – this information was often provided in the event that a pensioner died and his widow or dependent children were eligible to apply for dependent pension.

The documentation of the wound or illness will provide testimony of relatives, friends, and fellow veterans. In some cases, insight to a person and his family becomes evident. In one post-war pension, the soldier's brother-in-law did not help his sister's cause in obtaining a widow's pension as her brother basically indicated that the former soldier's death was due in part to heavy alcohol abuse.

You may also learn of prior marriages, names of the veteran’s parents, documentation of marriages, documentation of the birth (and death) of children, where the veteran lived since the war, and other various sundry items of interest. The diagnosis and treatment of said wound or ailment will be documented by physicians and the veteran’s vital signs are often recorded. Since these are submitted when an increase in pension benefits were sought, you can find a time line of the veteran’s health over the years.

Some of these records may indicate a person's service in another conflict.  I have seen detailed accounts of one soldier's involvement in the Mormon War, documentation of a wound that occurred in the Bleeding Kansas border struggle, several Mexican War references, foreign service before the soldier immigrated to the US (most of these were in the armies of various states), and one Civil War pension that was merged with a Spanish-American War claim in the early 1900s.

Applications under the Act of 1890

These applications were originally sought for a post-war disability. Some of these files can be quite large and may encompass two file folders. Like the post war files, you will find much of the same documentation that you find under the post-war General Act applications. The difference will be the documentation of the wound or ailment that prevents the veteran from earning a living by manual labor will not be related to a service injury.

 Rudimentary Radiograph from 1902 used as evidence in a pension claim

The Age/Service Acts

Those pensions filed for age related benefits will be smaller than the other post-war pension applications. There were a number of forms that were required including documentation of age and information regarding dependents. Since these are not related to illnesses or injuries, documentation from others will not be generally found. The only time when you find documents from others is when the soldier’s age is in question and/or to document a date of the veteran’s marriage.  These pensions are not contained in envelopes, as older files, but rather are attached to a fastener file.

Fastener file used for pensions filed under the age/service acts.


When the person filing for the pension was other than the veteran, the files become more interesting. The most interesting are when parents file for their son’s pension. Because a parent had to prove that his or her son had materially contributed to the family's substance, parents would often provide wartime letters from their sons that referenced their monetary help to the family. I have found these letters fascinating. In some pension files, you may find upwards of twenty letters that the parent parted with in order to be provided for in his or her old age.

Letter to parents from the field used as evidence of their son's support

Widows and dependent children pensions usually will provide documentation of the marriage and birth of the children. In some cases the actual wedding certificate is provided. In about four pensions that I've viewed, a photo of the soldier was included as part of the documentation. Since many of these files may not have been accessed for over 100 years, the photos are in excellent shape and a good scan of the photo can provide with an excellent “likeness” of the soldier in question.

Photo of a soldier sent in by his father as pension evidence


Even if a pension was not successful, these incomplete files should provide documentation of age, marriage, and children may be listed. Veterans may be denied pensions for a variety of reasons. Some of these could be that the soldier filed under an act that he was not eligible; the soldier was mustered into state service, but not into federal service – so he was not qualified to receive a pension; the soldier was a deserter; or the soldier died shortly after filing and the claim was considered abandoned.

For widows, claims may have been rejected because the claimant was divorced from the veteran; the widow had remarried; the soldier had not been honorably discharged, a completing claim from another wife had been approved and this wife had been considered the legal heir of the veteran; and occasionally a widow was rejected as the soldier’s marriage late in life was considered suspect. In the latter category, I saw a pension where a soldier married a young girl in 1912. Upon his death in 1913, the town’s postmaster petitioned the pension office to deny her widow’s claim, as the marriage, while legal, appeared to be suspicious in nature.

For dependent children, the pensions usually were rejected on the basis that the child was no longer a minor. While orphaned siblings could file for their brother’s pension, these recipients had to be of minority age. In one pension I studied, a child was determined to be not the soldier’s child as he had been imprisoned at the estimated time of the child’s conception. It was impossible for him to be the father of this child.

A parent’s claims for a soldier’s pension were usually rejected because there was inadequate documentation presented to prove that the soldier materially provided for their living. Step-parents were also ineligible to apply for a parental dependent pension even if the step-son provided for his step-parent’s living.

A soldier’s claim under the Service Acts may have been rejected as the soldier counted service under the state’s jurisdiction. While his entire service may have been over three years in length, his federal service was actually less than this period. Three years of service were required for full service related benefits. Likewise, a soldier who was a deserter (even when charges were forgiven) was not allowed to count time during which he was AWOL.


While I have studied over 500 pension records, only four of these were for my direct ancestors that included three great-great grandfathers and one great grandfather. While all four ancestors’ pensions provided a wealth of data, the most valuable was for my great grandfather, Thomas Wesley Day.

For years, I hit a brick wall regarding my great-grandmother. I was always told that her name was Alice Amy Champlain; however, I never could find any record of her or her family. When I looked at her husband’s pension record for the first time over 11 years ago, I found that I had been misinformed of her name.

Her last name was not Champlain, but rather Champlin. In addition, family tradition had transposed her first and middle names. The pension records indicated that her name was Amy A. Champlin. I additionally learned her date of death and the birth dates of her three children.

 Questions answered by claimant concerning his family

Other information came to light regarding this ancestor such as the date and location of his marriage. Additionally, I always wondered how my great-grandfather from Maine and his wife from Connecticut met. This becomes evident by reading the documentation that was provided by others. By comparing with other research, the two sisters who were neighbors of my great grandfather in Maine told of how he stayed with their mother following the war.  At some point, she moved  to Massachusetts with her two daughters and both daughters married men they had met in the Boston area. One of the sisters was married to Alfred Champlin who had moved to Massachusetts from Connecticut.  Alfred was the oldest brother of my future great-grandmother - the rest is history.

Affidavit of the two sisters who knew 
Thomas Day from his childhood.

I also learned some descriptive info about this ancestor. Like me, he had blue eyes. There is the possibility that I inherited this trait from him.

Declaration by pensioner that features a physical description

Although my great-grandfather’s second marriage was not documented in the pension, his future wife was often utilized as a witness as she served as his caretaker prior to their marriage. The pension record documented his middle name of Wesley which is found in no other records.

Letter from my grandmother's Congressman 
that mentions Thomas Day's middle name

This particular Civil War pension opened up several research doors for me and allowed me to discover more about my great-grandmother’s family.  For other relatives, pension records provided much needed information to help understand illnesses, occupations, and genetics. 

Not all pension records lead to stories of heroism and not all Civil War vets were upstanding men.  In my Civil War research, I discovered substance abusers, men who inflicted injuries upon themselves for the purpose of being discharged, one man who murdered his own brother, six suicides, husbands who deserted their wives, three individuals who changed their names to escape their pasts, an alarming number of divorces, and one medal of honor winner who spent more time deserting and defrauding the federal government than he did in actually serving his country.  Even the stories of infamy might provide a narrative that will enliven your family history.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Civil War Pensions – Understanding Eligibility

Over the years, I have had the opportunity of studying over 500 Civil War pension records and have grown to appreciate their importance as historical and genealogical records. While the Civil War was not the only war where pensions were issued, it remains the war that produced the largest number of pensioners in American history.

My Great-Grandfather's Pension Card

In the 1930s, the Veterans Administration became the successor to the Interior Department’s Pension Office. The management of veteran and survivor benefits was transferred to the VA during this period.

Civil War pensions were first issued in 1862 and continued until the last pensioner died. When considering their value as a genealogical record, It is best to have a basic understanding of who qualified for a pension and what type of material you can expect to find. In this post we will briefly discuss how a person qualified for a pension.

To be totally honest, outside of my own observation and knowledge, a large portion of what follows was synthesized from Claudia Linares’ The Civil War Pension Law, a working paper for the Center for Population Economics at the University of Chicago. Ms. Linares’ document is ©2001 and is invaluable for understanding the pension system in great detail. If you are considering a comprehensive look at Civil War pensions, I would suggest reading her paper on the subject.

Not Every Civil War Veteran Received A Federal Pension

While a large number of pensions had been processed, it only represented a portion of the soldiers who served. Most of my pension research centers on one particular union regiment and 70% of its nearly 1200 men had a pension application associated with their service. Not all applications were successful in securing pensions; however, these applications continue to remain on file and can provide specific information about the soldier in question.

My specific unit, the Ninth Pennsylvania Reserves, had some unique characteristics that may have elevated the number of pension records associated with its soldiers. It was a three-year regiment that served in several major campaigns and was named by William F. Fox in his Regimental Losses of the Civil War as one of the top 300 Union fighting units of the Civil War. Other regiments with shorter terms of enlistment and a lower number of engagements would have a lower percentage of pensioned soldiers or survivors under the original pension rules.

Other variables also determined whether a soldier would have a pension associated with his service. If he was not a wartime casualty, then how long a soldier lived, whether he had any subsequent disabilities, or if he predeceased his widow and she did not remarry would all constitute variables that determined whether a pension record may be associated with the veteran's service.

In addition, federal pensions were only available for Union and not Confederate veterans. Southern soldiers and sailors were considered as being in rebellion against the United States and their service was not honored by the US government.

Not all northern soldiers were eligible for pensions – only those who served in units that were officially mustered into service of the United States were eligible. Members of state mustered militia units and locally raised home guard units were ineligible from applying for a pension. In some cases these units may have been temporarily mustered for federal service; however, if the length of this service was less than 90 days, veterans of these units could not apply for Civil War pensions.

Several Pension Systems Existed

General Law System

Up until 1890, only one system existed: the General Law system that provided pensioners with a monthly amount based on an inability to perform manual labor because of an injury or illness that was incurred in the line of duty during the war. Survivors were also able to apply and receive a pension based on whether a soldier died in the line of duty or as a result of disease or injury occurring during the war.

Survivors, primarily widows and dependent children under the age of 16, were able to apply and to be pensioned. If the deceased soldier did not leave a widow or children, other survivors could also apply, namely parents and orphaned siblings under 16. These applicants had to provide evidence that the son or brother had contributed to the survivor’s livelihood.

The monthly rates for which pensioners were paid varied due to the soldier’s or sailor’s rank and his type of disability. The formula for calculating pensions became quite complicated over time and disabilities that did not permit pensions in the past were added at a reduced rate. Furthermore, Congress also raised rates periodically for certain permanent disabilities.

Additionally, the passage of the Arrears Act in 1879 allowed veterans to additionally claim a lump sum benefit that was paid based on the time of his discharge of service. Survivors were paid a lump sum based on the date of the soldier’s or sailor’s date of death. Claims for pensions soared at this time.

Act of 1890 System

In 1890, the federal government permitted Union veterans the opportunity to apply for a pension based on an inability to perform manual labor due to a non-service related disability. Unlike the General Law system, rates were set to fall between $6.00 and $12.00 per month.

The more severe the disability, the greater the rate; however, the maximum was limited to $12.00 per month. To qualify, a veteran had to serve at least 90 days, be honorably discharged, and his disability could not be related to or caused by vicious habits (i.e., drinking, substance abuse, non-accidental self inflicted injury, etc.).

Additionally, the 1890 Act allowed widows to apply for a pension originally at a rate of $8.00 per month as long as her husband had served 90 days or more and was honorably discharged. In 1904, age related benefits were added to the 1890 system.

A veteran, who had no disabilities, could apply for a pension based on age and receive monthly benefits for life. These were prorated based on age at filing. These rates were as follows: $6.00 for 62 or older, $8.00 for 65 or older, and $12.00 for 70 or older.

Prior to passage the 1890 act, a special census of Union Veterans was conducted that year. This special census, which was taken simultaneously with the 11th census, enumerated the veteran's rank, unit, enlistment and discharge dates, length of service, disabilities incurred in service, and address. As the 1890 census was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1921, a similar fate occurred to the special census prior to 1943.

All of the records for the states and territories alphabetically from Alabama through Kansas were completely destroyed and half of Kentucky's records were affected. The complete surviving records are from states and territories alphabetically from Louisiana through Wyoming. In addition, the records for the District of Columbia were also spared.

Various Age/Service Acts

The Service and Age Pension Act of 1907 allowed individuals to apply for a pension based on age and length of service (90 days or more) and provided monthly benefits for men at various increments of age: 62 or older $12.00, 70 or older $15.00, and 75 older $20.00.

In 1912, the Service and Age Act passed and this act adjusted the 1907 rates based on the amount of time in service. For example, soldiers who served three years received a higher benefit rate than those who served for 90 or 100 days or another shorter period of time. Rate increases to this system occurred in 1918.

In the next installment, I’ll discuss what a researcher may find in within the various pension files and how this material can be of genealogical importance.

The above information was synthesized from:

Linares, C. (2001). The Civil War Pension Law. Center for Population Economics working paper series document 2001-6. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
Available from

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Basic Genealogy: Estimating Birth Dates

In those situations where we do not have a birth date for an ancestor, family historians must rely upon other sources of data to obtain an approximate year of birth. There will be times when this is the best that we can hope for in these situations.

One of the sources for approximating a person’s birth year is the decennial census that is taken in the United States and other countries. In the US, the census is taken in the year that ends the decade – which is the year that ends in zero.*

Theoretically, a person should increase in age 10 years with every census; however, this is not always the case. There a couple of reasons why this may happen.

  1. The person giving the information may not really know his or her age or birth date. In our society, where our birth date and Social Security Numbers are necessary information, this seems unfathomable. A birth date/and or age was of lesser importance in the past.
  2. A person may have temporarily forgotten his or her own age while giving the information to the census taker. Think about how many times a person in your presence was confused about his or her age.
  3. The person giving the information to the census taker was not the person in question and provided incorrect information based on their own level of knowledge of the other individual.
  4. The date from which ages were to be calculated changed over census years and variations may be related to this factor. In each census, a specific date was given to calculate the person’s age. For example, several censuses registered the age as of June 1 of the census year. If one person was born on May 28, 1850, he would have been registered at being 10 years of age in the 1860 census. Another person born five days later on June 2, 1850 would be listed as 9 years old. The following chart provides the date when census age was to be calculated.
Census YearAge by Date
1790First Monday in August (2)
1800First Monday in August (4)
1810First Monday in August (6)
1820First Monday in August (7)
18301 June
18401 June
18501 June
18601 June
18701 June
18801 June
18801 June
1890 Fragments1 June
19001 June
191015 April
19201 January
19301 April

There are several other factors to consider when checking the census records for age. The censuses prior to 1850 did not provide an exact age, but rather a range of ages. These first six censuses also only listed the head of the household.

The 1890 is virtually missing, as the vast majority of these census records were destroyed in a fire. Some isolated record fragments exist for certain locations; however, for the most part, the 1890 is nonexistent.

The 1900 census also provided the month and year of birth in addition to the person's age. The 1900 is valuable in this regard. Unfortunately, these two records sometimes do not always agree for a variety of reasons including error.


To approximate an ancestor’s year of birth, it is necessary to chart the age of the person over several censuses.

In the past the genealogical community used a legal term, the preponderance of the evidence, to describe the totality of the evidence to make a reasonably correct assertion about our ancestors.

As the term has been discontinued for genealogical purposes, Helen F.M. Leary argues “The genealogical standard applies when evidence is direct and virtually impregnable (e.g., an interlocking series of birth, marriage, and death certificates, for example). It applies when circumstantial evidence is assembled—to distinguish among several persons of the same name, perhaps. And it applies when evidence is insufficient for a solid case, because records do not survive or were never created.”1

Several benchmarks can be assumed in making a hypothesis regarding aspects of one’s family.

  1. Eyewitness accounts are generally weighted as being more accurate. (i.e., a parent’s statement about a child’s birth date is more reliable than another relative who was not present at the person’s birth).
  2. Information recorded at or closer to the time of the event generally holds more weight than documentation created years after the fact. (i.e., a birth certificate’s record of a birth date is more reliable than a person’s death certificate that records a date of birth).
  3. Primary records are generally more reliable than secondary or tertiary sources. Actual records of an event, such as marriage certificates, are more reliable than a local history book that notes the date of a wedding.
  4. Even though certain evidence (as noted above) appears to be stronger, mistakes can and do happen within this documentation (i.e., incorrect information on a birth record).
  5. In some cases, weaker secondary data may be the only record of an event; hence, this may be the only useful piece of evidence that is available and must be used.
  6. While assumptions can be made, all evidence needs to be considered, analyzed, noted, and the sources of the evidence documented.


For illustration purposes, I have picked three ancestors for which I do not have an exact date of birth and charted these as they appear in the various census records.  In the 1830 and 1840 censuses, only a range of ages are given and only the heads of households are named. The exact identity of each household member cannot be verified but only speculated by using other data; often, you will find a spurious person whose identity is beyond speculation.

Henry Brakeall - my 3rd Great Grandfather
Census Year Location Listed Age Birth Date Range
1840 Warren Township, Franklin County, PA 30 to 39 June 2, 1800 –
June 1, 1810
1850 Thompson Township, Fulton County, PA 45 June 2, 1804 –
June 1, 1805
1860 Liberty Township, Clinton County, OH 57 June 2, 1802 –
June 1, 1803
1870 Washington Township, Clinton County, OH 66 June 2, 1803 –
June 1, 1804
1880 Washington Township, Clinton County, OH 76 June 2, 1803 –
June 1, 1804

With my first example, the 1840 information only confirms the general time of when Henry was born.  While the ages and the resultant dates vary, only two of the four records agree:  the 1870 and 1880 censuses.  I believe that we can conclude that Henry was probably born during 1803 or 1804.  I have seen a number of unsourced genealogies that state that he was born on July 1, 1804; however, since no citations are listed, the date should remain suspect.  Henry appears to have been born circa 1803 or between 1803 and 1804.

Susan Brakeall - my 3rd Great Grandmother
Census Year Location Listed Age Birth Date Range
1840 Warren Township, Franklin County, PA 30 to 39 June 2, 1800 –
June 1, 1810
1850 Thompson Township, Fulton County, PA 48 June 2, 1801 –
June 1, 1802
1860 Liberty Township, Clinton County, OH 59 June 2, 1800 –
June 1, 1801
1870 Washington Township, Clinton County, OH 68 June 2, 1801 –
June 1, 1802

For Henry's wife Susan, there are only three usable census records (1850, 1860, and 1870). Of the three, two agree that she was born in either 1801 or 1802. In applying an approximate birth year, I might list it as circa 1801 or between 1801 and 1802.

John Merriman - my 2nd Great Grandfather
Census Year Location Listed Age Birth Date Range
1830 Ohio Township, Allegheny County, PA 0 to 4 June 2, 1825 –
June 1, 1830
1840 Ohio Township, Allegheny County, PA 10 to 14 June 2, 1825 –
June 1, 1830
1850 Pittsburgh Ward 2, Allegheny County, PA 24 June 2, 1825 –
June 1, 1826
1860 Allegheny Ward 2, Allegheny County, PA 30 June 2, 1829 –
June 1, 1830
1870 Allegheny Ward 3, Allegheny County, PA     40 June 2, 1829 –
June 1, 1830
1880 McKeesport, Allegheny County, PA 50 June 2, 1829 –
June 1, 1830

For John Merriman, three out of four censuses agree that he was born in either 1829 or 1830. So he might be listed as being born circa 1829 or between 1829 and 1830. The disagreeing census record has John living in a hotel with a number of other residents. It is possible that someone besides himself provided the information.

As for your own ancestors, hopefully the evidence will lead you to make a reasonable assumption regarding a year of birth for some of these individuals.

1Leary, H.F.M. (1998, January) Evidence revisited: DNA, POE, and GPS. OnBoard 4(1).

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Basic Genealogy: Calculating Dates

If our genealogical quests were easy, all pertinent information about an ancestor would be found in one place and would be well documented. Unfortunately, the records left behind by our ancestors were not recorded for our benefit and this requires us to do a little work from time to time.

Commonly called BMD (birth, marriage, and death) records, vital record information may not be complete, available, or even accessible. In some jurisdictions, civil registration was not mandatory until the late 19th or early 20th centuries. Because of this, accurate dates of birth may not always be available.

In the next several posts, I hope to give you some insight on how to use various records that are available to help you at least pinpoint a year of birth if not an actual date. This particular article will deal with the calculating a birth date when an age at the time of death is known. Often these notations are found on tombstones and they will help us to determine a birth date of an ancestor.

There are two methods to do this and I will show you both before I give you the easiest method of calculating a birth date. I am also providing three examples and will work the math for you.

The first method is the standard method where the birth date is determined by subtracting the years, months, and days from the date in three calculations.

The second method, called the 8870 method, calculates the birth date by converting the three sets of numbers into single numbers, subtracting the age at death from the death date, and then subtracting the constant of 8870 to correct for errors.

I’ll work out both methods with three actual examples.

Example One: John S. Myers

My third great grandfather, John S. Myers is buried in Independence–Butler Cemetery in Butler, Richland County, Ohio. I visited this graveyard in July 2007 and was able to photograph his stone as well as other relatives buried in this location. Like John, several of the older stones provided a date of death and the subject’s age at the time of his or her demise. In this case, John S. Myers died on November 26, 1878. His reported age was 74 years, 8 months, and 18 days.

Standard Method

Death Date 1878 11 26
Age at Death -74 -8 -18
Birth Date 1804 3 8

Using the standard method, John’s birth date is calculated as being March 8, 1804.

8870 Method

This particular method requires you to convert the date of death to an eight digit number and the age at death to six or seven digit number. Seven digit numbers will only be used for those whose age at death is 100 years or greater. Regarding the death date calculation, John’s November 26, 1878 death date is converted in the following method:

First, the year constitutes the first four digits 1874.

Second, the month is digits six and seven: 11 (for months with single digits, i.e., May being 5 – precede the number with a 0. Therefore, May would be 05; August = 08; September is 09.

Third, the final two digits are the day. In this example, it is 26. Like the month, single digit numbers like 2, 4, and 9 must be preceded by a 0 making them 02, 04, and 09.

The calculated number is 18741126

Similarly, the age of death is also constructed in the same manner. If there is no month or day date, 00 must be used. John’s age was 74 years, 8 months, and 18 days. Therefore, the calculated number is 740818.

In the 8870 method, the date of death is subtracted from the age; the subtotal is subtracted by the constant of 8870 and the resultant number is the birth date. Because the constant is used, the numbers may need to be adjusted.

AGE NUMBER -740818
SUBTOTAL 18040308
TOTAL 18031438

Note in the above number there are some anomalies in the days and months. If the number of days is over 30, subtract 30 (don’t worry about 28, 29, and 31 day months at this step). The resulting number is 08.

The 30 subtracted from the days is converted to one month which needs to be added to the day columns – making 15 months. Since the number 15 is beyond 1 year, subtract 12 from this number and the result is 03. The 12 months are converted to one year and this year is added to the year number of 1803 making the result 1804.

The adjusted number is 18040308 or March 8, 1804.  While it occasionally occurs as it did here, the subtotal is the correct date of birth.

Example Two: Mary Myers

My third great grandmother, Mary Myers is buried in same cemetery as her husband John S. Myers. Her information appears on the opposite side of the monument marking their graves. Mary died on May 1, 1879 – a little over six months after her husband. Her age at death was 74 years, 11 months, and 14 days.

Because the numbers for the age in days and months is greater than the days and months in the date of death, this must be adjusted to perform the calculation. Since the day attribute of 01 is too small, we need to borrow 1 month or 30 days. Therefore, the months are reduced to 04 and the days increased to 31.

Similarly, the month number of 04 is too small. We need to borrow one year; this will add 12 months making the month 16 and the year becomes 1878.

Standard Method

Death Date 1879 05 01
Adjusted Death Date 1878 16 31
Age at Death -74 -11 -14
Birth Date 1804 5 17

With the standard method, Mary Myers’ birth date is reckoned as May 17, 1804.

8870 Method

In this example, the 8870 method is fairly straightforward and requires no additional calculation.

AGE NUMBER -741114
SUBTOTAL 18049387
TOTAL 18040517

The 8870 method also calculates the age as May 17, 1804.

Example Three: John C. Brakeall

My great-great grandfather, John C. Brakeall, is buried in the Antioch Christian Church Cemetery at Big Cove Tannery, Fulton County, PA. I had an opportunity to visit this cemetery during October 2005. It is a quaint little graveyard that is up on a long ridge. While this is generally called the Antioch Cemetery, it is actually two cemeteries: the Antioch Church Cemetery and the Zion Methodist Church Cemetery. I believe this grave is located on the Methodist side. The Zion Methodist Church no longer exists and hasn't for some time.

His date of death is listed on his tombstone as December 23, 1896 and he was 63 years and 23 days at the time of his death.

Standard Method

Death Date 1896 12 23
Age at Death -63 -0 -23
Birth Date 1833 12 0

Notice the anomaly in the above date. It has the calculation as December 0, 1833. Since this is obviously impossible, the date should be moved to the last day of the previous month making his birth date as November 30, 1833.

8870 Method

In this example, the age at death needs to be adjusted adding 12 months and subtracting one year. Thus, 630023 becomes 621223. You cannot have 00 in the month position; however, it can appear in the day position.

AGE NUMBER -621223
SUBTOTAL 18340000
TOTAL 18331130

John’s birth date calculation arrives at November 30, 1833 by using the 8870 method.

The Quick & Easy Method

Just like most college instructors, I have explained how to calculate birth dates using simple mathematical equations. Fortunately, you do not have to perform the above procedures as there are online calculators that do the work for you.

You are asked to input the date of death and the age at death and once you click the calculation button, the date of birth will be displayed.

One of my favorite tools is found at the ProGenealogists’ web site. You can find it at

I hope that you found this helpful.