The Problem of Dates



One of the problems in doing Early American research is the 1752 date change. Prior to 1752, all of England and her colonies were using the Julian calendar to report ecclesiastical, legal, and civil events. In 1752, they all changed to the Gregorian calendar. In order to properly interpret dates prior to 1752, one must understand the difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars.

On the Julian calendar the first day of the year was March 25. When the switch was made to the Gregorian calendar, January 1 became the first day of the year. This gives us a problem when a date is written as 15th day, 7th mo., 1700. In 1700, the seventh month of the year was not July; it was September. So this date would be 15 September 1700. Many beginning researchers get trapped in the pitfall of recording the wrong month for such a date. Many times, when I have been doing research in various sources for a particular event, I have found a two month difference in the date. Right away, I know I've run into this problem of misinterpretation of dates.

Although March 25 was the beginning of the year prior to 1752 for ecclesiastical, legal, and civil purposes, since Norman times, January 1 was considered to be the beginning of the historical year. This gave rise to a double dating system in some places -- between January 1 and March 25. If a person's birth date was 25 February 1741, the date might be written 25 February 1741/42. This showed that he was born 25 February 1741 under the Julian calendar, but in 1742 under the Gregorian calendar. Even after England and her colonies changed the Gregorian calendar in 1752, this double dating system was continued by some colonial record keepers. This is confusing because some record keepers used double dating and some didn't; some continued it after 1752 and others didn't. It's very inconsistent and it helps to be aware of this.

Another pitfall is the Quaker dating system. Quakers abhorred the names of the months and days. Therefore, they never used them. Quaker dates will be numbers -- with March being the first month and Sunday the first day. An example of a Quaker rendering of a date would be: the 4th day of the 2nd week of the 8th month 1699. This would be Wednesday of the second week of October 1699. You will need a calendar for 1699 to figure out what day of the month this is.

Another thing you need to keep in mind is that what I have said above is in reference to England and her colonies only. Other countries changed calendars at different times. Holland, for example, changed to the Gregorian calendar in 1583. So, if you are doing New Netherlands research, you will not run into this 1752 calendar change. They were already on the Gregorian calendar long before they came to America.

One more thing -- When the change was made from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, eleven days were added. Sometimes a date was changed to reflect this and sometimes it was not. If you find someone who seemed to be baptized before his birth or whose intention was declared after his marriage, this could be the reason. Example: A person was born on March 1 and baptized on March 10 in 1752; the baptism date was not changed; the 11 days were added to the birth date, making it March 12. Now it appears that the person was baptized two days before he was born.

There are many other things that could be said on this subject. I have only hit the highlights in order to make you aware of the problem. If you are doing colonial research, it would be a good idea to study this subject in more depth.

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