Growing up, I was always aware of the important dates of my parents’ and grandparents’ lives, and those of my aunts and uncles. My family marked birthdays, anniversaries, and death dates, noting them together with the passing holidays and holy days. My mother would announce someone’s upcoming special day, a flowery card would be bought, and a trip made to the post office to buy a stamp and mail it. So I always knew that my grandpa George Michutka’s birthday was April 21.
Except maybe it wasn’t, quite.
Genealogical research is full of surprises—exciting surprises, puzzling surprises, painful surprises, and surprising surprises. When at long last the parish records of Slovakia were microfilmed and available for research, when at long last I could reel through images of browned pages that made me feel that the village must have passed every day under a sepia-toned sky, I sought first my grandfather’s baptismal record to confirm his father’s name and set the foundation for working backwards to earlier generations. I scrolled to baptismal records, to 1891, to April and there he was with the right parents, baptized April 30 and born on the …. 29th???
|"Georgius Micsutka" birth & baptismal record, Makov, Slovakia, 29 April 1891|
How could we have had the date wrong? We knew the 21st from George himself. Which date was right?
Over the years, I collected a few documents in which George explicitly stated his date of birth, rather than just his age. My puzzlement only increased. I found the following:
- On June 5, 1917, George Mitchutka [sic] filled out a draft registration card; his date of birth: April 24, 1892.
- On January 2, 1923, George Michutka filled out a Declaration of Intention in Clinton County, Michigan; date of birth: April 24, 1892.
- Around September 1928, George sent for a certified copy of his baptismal record; of course, it gave his date of birth as April 29, 1891, since it was information taken from the same parish register as was later microfilmed.
- A second Declaration of Intention (apparently he never completed the naturalization process in the 1920s) was signed and filed on November 4, 1942; date of birth: April 29, 1891; but…
- on his Petition for Naturalization (date of this documents is uncertain, perhaps February 1947) his date of birth is recorded as April 21, 1891.
- George applied for a Social Security account in May of perhaps 1945 (the year is difficult to read); again, the date recorded is April 21, 1891.
It’s tricky to claim a pattern with so few records, but it looks like George first claimed April 24, 1892 as his birth date, until he got the certified extract of his baptismal record. After receiving that baptismal certificate, he used the date recorded there, April 29, 1891. And apparently sometime between very late 1942 and very early 1947, George switched to April 21 as his birthday on legal documents.
Don’t even bother asking me “why?”
I suppose there are more avenues to research. At what age was a young man required to register for the military in Germany, where George was living in 1907, and in the Slovak lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where his family resided? Could he—or his mother, or his uncle—have fudged his year of birth to avoid the army? When did George first get a driver’s license, and what date of birth (did the document even ask for that, back then?) did he use for that? Was George’s date of birth recorded incorrectly in that baptismal register to start with, and his mother Johanna made a late-life confession: “son, you were really born on the 21st”?
In what other documents might I find with his date of birth recorded? and really, would they ever answer the question of why this date or that date?
Standards of research in genealogy would say that the baptismal record is the most likely to be accurate: it was recorded at or very near the time of the event; the informant (parent? godparent?) likely had first-hand knowledge of the event (the birth) although the recorder (priest?) did not; it was created as an official record; and there was little, if any, reason to falsify the information. The one thing that makes me a tad nervous is that the entries on his page of the baptismal register are written with no real variation in the script, as if they had been written all at one sitting from another piece (or pieces) of paper (or worse, from memory). Two entries earlier on the page have errors crossed out. Could there be a mistake in George’s date of birth?
How much does this really matter, whether he was born the 21st, 24th, or 29th of April 1891 (or 1892)? I’m sure it made no significant difference in my grandfather’s life. It has made me a little nuts, because I go back and forth on which date to put for his birth in my genealogy database, and which to record under “alt. birth.” It became a little more of an issue a few years back, when I decided that it was past time for George to have a headstone on his grave: which date to use? Which date matters?
I decided to have the headstone date read simply “1891-1967.” April 29 is the documented date with the most weight; April 21 is associated with memories of my grandpa. We can each mentally add (or not) the date that matters to us. The important thing, in the end, is to note his birth as we pass through April.
|George Michutka gravestone, St. Paul's Cemetery, section G, lot 119C #7, Owosso, Michigan|
Next Monday: What's in a name
Sv. Peter a Pavol [Saints Peter and Paul] Roman Catholic Church (Makov, Slovakia), parish registers, volume II, 1836-1908, Georgius Micsutka baptism (1891, entry #43); FHL microfilm 2,003291, item 3.
“World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918,” digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 19 November 2005), George Mitchutka, no. 397, Draft Board [illegible], New York, New York; citing World War I Selective Service Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918, NARA microfilm publication M1509; no specific roll cited.
Clinton County, Michigan, Circuit Court, file no. 195, George Michutka, 2 January 1923, declaration of intention. I don’t have a note of whether any of the old county naturalization papers I’m citing here are held still by the circuit court or another body. I had obtained copies in 1999 from the Clinton and Shiawassee County Clerks’ offices; more recently, it appears that the documents or copies of them are at the Michigan State Archives (see www.michigan.gov/statearchives).
 Juro Mičutka baptismal certificate (30 April 1891 baptism, Makov [church of St. Peter and Paul]); issued 20 September 1928, Nitra diocese, Czechoslovakia; original privately held. I have an old photocopy of this certificate; some elements such as the official stamps are not clear enough on my copy to offer additional information.
 Shiawassee County, Michigan, Circuit Court, file no. 1432, George Mitchutka [sic], 4 November 1942, declaration of intention.
 Clinton County, Michigan, Circuit Court, file no. 442, George Michutka, apparently 10 February 1947, petition for naturalization.
George Michutka, SS no. 368-28-0040, 19 May [1945?], application for Social Security Account Number (Form SS-5), Social Security Administration, Baltimore, Maryland.
 Note that civil records in what is present-day Slovakia did not begin until 1895, and until that year, church registers were the official records. People born before 1895 who later needed proof of age or date of birth would request a certified copy of their baptismal record. For more information, see Bill Tarkulich’s excellent website on Slovak Genealogy Research, specifically http://www.iabsi.com/gen/public/churches.htm.