Making the best of information we have to work with

Family Searcher    Determining an exact date for vital events in the past can be complicated by changes in the calendar and in writing styles. In centuries past, Europe and Colonial America used the Julian calendar which was named after Roman Emperor Julius Caesar. The main reason for a change to the current Gregorian calendar was the wide spread of Roman Catholicism and the fact that by using the Julian calendar, the date of Easter kept getting later and later each year. The Catholics wanted the date to stay closer to that agreed upon in 325 AD (now called CE or Common Era) by the First Council of Nicaea; closer to the Spring Equinox. So in 1582, under the auspices of Pope Gregory XIII, the calendar was changed. Protestants and Eastern Orthodox countries, however, continued to use the Julian calendar, with Greece being the last European country to accept the Gregorian calendar, in 1923.

    There were two parts to the change. The first part changed the calendar’s leap years, so the new calendar coincided with the revolution of the Earth about the Sun; the Solar year. The second change added 10 days to the calendar to make the Vernal Equinox occur on March 21st. The difference between the two calendars has grown every few centuries.
    In addition, in the last two millennia the date of the New Year has varied greatly from December 25th through May 1st. Most Western European countries adopted January 1 as the date of the New Year before they adopted the Gregorian calendar. It is due to the change to the Gregorian calendar that we will sometimes see a date recorded as 1752/3. Either or both dates can be used but you should be consistent in your use once you decide. Original computerized genealogy programs did not allow for the double dates to be used, but most, if not all, do now.
    Another complication in estimating dates is in the use of gravestone “age at death.” I always thought that I could count back to get an exact date. However, recently I learned that, traditionally (not exclusively) this date was estimated using a standard 30-day month. As we are all aware, five of our calendar months have more or fewer than 30 days, so even using the “age” on the gravestone only gives an approximate birth date.
    A final consideration was the traditional use of “Inst” and “Ult” in writing dates. Inst stood for instant, it was used to mean “in the current month.” Ult, Ultimo, was used to mean, “during the last month.” So many letters from, say Victorian times, may read something like “received your letter of the 15th Ult”. Where today we would probably say, “got the e-mail you sent on the 15th last month.”
    Another place you might see this used is in obituaries. So an obituary from February 23rd which says the death was the “15 Inst.”, mean the death occurred on the 15 of February, and an obituary on the same date which says the “15th Ult.” Means the death occurred on January 15th.
    So, while we should always use care to write dates as correctly as we can, we must acknowledge that many dates from the past can only be an estimate. This is not the best news, but we can only do our best with the available information.
    Nina G. Brawn has lived in the Dover-Foxcroft area for over 50 years and currently lives there with her husband Fred. Nina was the last of 10 children, has three children of her own and nine grandchildren. She can be reached online at ninagbrawn@gmail.com.

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