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When Research Sources Don't Agree

Writers and researchers use a lot of sources during the writing process. A basic rule for all of us to remember is that first-hand/witness accounts called primary sources, such as diaries, ship logs, research papers, and interviews are best. For research purposes, books and encyclopedias are considered secondary sources.  Secondary sources might be used in research, but with great caution. Sometimes a presented "fact" has been repeated so many times everyone assumes it is true. A closer look at primary sources helps us know the truth. 

That's what we want, right? The truth?

At times we, as writers, might say as long three sources agree, the fact has been verified. But we still need to look at those sources. I'd like to share a story from my research for The Laura Ingalls Wilder Companion: A Chapter-by-Chapter Guide (Chicago Review Press). You will see what I did when my research resources did not agree.
Even the most basic of facts need to be verified while researching. I found that out when I was noting the birthdate of Almanzo Wilder, the husband of Laura Ingalls Wilder for my book.

Every single book I had ever read (and there were a lot of them) said Almanzo Wilder was born on February 13, 1857. That's definitely a reasonable birthdate since Almanzo's headstone states he was born in 1857.  And headstones can be a primary source.
Almanzo and Laura Ingalls Wilder's headstone located in Mansfield, Missouri.
Photo © Annette Whipple. 

But, it's best to get as close to the event as possible for primary sources. Unfortunately, there is no family Bible or birth record for Almanzo Wilder. However, there are census records from his childhood. Could one help me know the actual year Almanzo Wilder was born? 

Now a word of caution about census records: they have the reputation for often being wrong. But in my research, I examined the 1860, 1870, and 1875 census records from Malone, New York. They gave his age as 1, 11, and 16. They were consistent.
1860 Census. Malone, New York.

It would be highly unusual for three census records in a row to be consistent AND wrong.

I came to the conclusion that Almanzo Wilder was born in 1859. I knew I had to address this change of birth date (according to previously published books) in my own book. How did I do that?

I addressed it head-on. Using the nonfiction text feature called a sidebar, I addressed the question of when Almanzo Wilder was born in The Laura Ingalls Wilder Companion: A Chapter-by-Chapter Guide
A page from The Laura Ingalls Wilder Companion by Annette Whipple and published by Chicago Review Press (2020) discusses the birthdate of Almanzo Wilder. 

I really wondered how the Little House and Laura Ingalls Wilder community would react to this news. Though I spent years researching and writing The Laura Ingalls Wilder Companion, others have devoted decades to the academic research of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Before I submitted my manuscript to Chicago Review Press, at least three experts read the manuscript in whole (including William Anderson, THE Laura Ingalls Wilder expert). They all agreed with me. And the response to the book? I wrote my book for children, but I knew adults would read it, too. They have...and based on the reviews, they love it, too. (Phew! We never know...)

Interestingly, within a few months of turning my manuscript over to my editor, a new book related to Laura Ingalls Wilder was published. AND it stated Almanzo's year of birth as 1859. This book by Caroline Fraser, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder won many awards, including the Pulitzer. 
Honestly, I was a little disappointed my book wasn't the first to include 1859 as Almanzo's birth year. BUT I love that the truth is out there in multiple books. Honestly, I don't know if I would have sought out the census records if an interview didn't nudge me toward that rabbit trail. 

If you are a fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House book series, you might want to explore my blog called the Laura Ingalls Wilder Companion. As mentioned, I also have a book that is significantly more comprehensive than the blog which is (sadly) not updated often due to my other book deadlines. I'd love for you to request The Laura Ingalls Wilder Companion: A Chapter-by-Chapter Guide at your local bookstore.

And one more thing for Laura Ingalls Wilder fans. Today is the anniversary of  the Wilders. Almanzo and Laura Ingalls Wilder were married on August 25, 1885. Click here to view my full Little House timeline. You can view Laura and Almanzo's wedding photo at the timeline link. 

If you're interested in writing nonfiction for kids, you might be interested in my upcoming master class with Write 2 Ignite. In addition to two guest editors and loads of hands-on activities, I'm teaching three workshops focusing on nonfiction, research, and the educational market. The speaker sessions are recorded, too! Learn more here.

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  1. This is so interesting. I love researching -- too much, probably. I like the sidebar information explaining things. :) Thank you.

  2. Great! THANKS FOR sharing. Off to FB to share. Carol Baldwin

  3. I have also looked up the census records and wondered, I always thought that the 1859 date was correct. So glad you published this!

  4. Anita Crawford ClarkJanuary 19, 2023 at 11:00 PM

    Oh wow. I love this post. I ran into a similar situation while doing research on Sojourner Truth. I’m a huge Laura Ingals Wilder fan. And love that her anniversary day is the same as mine, August 25. Thanks for sharing.