In genealogy, we tend to think of records as something on paper or something digital. Whether it is a book, a microfilm (pictures of paper!), a photograph or a website, we’re fairly comfortable with paper and pixels. But what about stone?
Tombstones are a type of record. Just as we need to evaluate the paper and pixels that we use in our research, we need to evaluate the tombstones. The process of evaluation is remarkably similar.
One of the key questions to ask is: How old is that tombstone? In other words, is it consistent with the date of death? Tombstones are like any other record in that regard; the further away from the event it was created, the more likely there is to be an error.
What is the stone made of?
The stone itself can give a clue as to its age. Different materials were popular at different times.
- Slate, limestone and sandstone were popular through the mid-19th century
- Marble was popular during the mid-19th century
- Zinc or “white bronze” markers were made from 1875 to 1912 (see last week’s Tombstone Tuesday)
- Gray granite became popular in the late 1800s
- Colored granite came in vogue in the 1920s and continues to be the most popular material today
With these materials in mind, let’s look at a few tombstones.
To the left is a tombstone made of sandstone in the Old Colony Burying Ground in Granville, Ohio. The inscription reads:
Sep. [?] 19, 1827
Judging from the material of the stone, the font used in the inscription, and the motifs used on the stone, I would say that this stone is consistent with the death date.
It should be noted that just because a stone is consistent with the date of death does not ensure that it was placed there shortly after the death. It might have been several months or even years later. Always keep in mind that the tombstone is just one record of a person’s death.
Let’s take a look at another example:
This tombstone for Charles and Susan McCullogh Scott is in Founders Cemetery, Cambridge, Ohio. Charles’s death date is listed as October 29, 1857; Susan’s is listed as June 15, 1855. However, the stone is polished rose-colored granite. In addition, the font is much more modern than what was in use in the mid-1800s. Based on this, I am confident that this stone was erected not at the time of their deaths, but sometime in the 20th (or even 21st) century.
There is another clue on the stone that points to it not being from 1855 or 1857. Take a look at Susan’s birth information: “Born May 17, 1796, Short Creek, West Virginia.” West Virginia did not become a state until 1863; therefore, it would not be named as such on a tombstone erected in the 1850s.
So what do we do when we find such a tombstone? We don’t discount it out of hand. Instead, we take it as a clue that needs to be followed. For example, you wouldn’t want to record on your ancestor chart that Susan was born in Short Creek, West Virginia and leave it at that. It would be better to do some research in the Short Creek area and see what other records of a Susan McCullough you could find.