In-Depth Guide to Ancestry – Part 2 – Date Format

This is Part 2 of an in-depth guide to Ancestry DNA. I’m going to discuss how to enter dates into your tree in a way that gives you the most benefit from Ancestry.

This is the current list of chapters in the series:

Are you thinking: do Ancestry date formats really need a full chapter? Well, yes if you’ve ever scratched your head at these situations:

Carolingian date format
Ancient Carolingian date format
  • Different census records show different birth dates!”
  • All I have are the dates on the headstone.”
  • “I figure the birth date must be before 1820.”
  • The death date is either 1884 or 1885.
  • “It sucks that Ancestry wants ‘European’ dates!”

The Ancestry Date Format

The preferred Ancestry date format is dd mmm yyyy. For example, “11 Feb 1852”.
This is one of the few guidelines that Ancestry state clearly, so I include the link to their documentation. It is also the standard genealogical format.

Just to be clear, I’m not banging a drum for a single universal correct date format. As a data specialist I follow ISO standard in my professional life, which is quite different (yyyy-mm-dd).

So why would you need a consistent date format at all? Particularly one that you may not be used to. Look at these entries from two different trees.

Which date format?

My guess is that Richard Smith was born on the 9th of June in Mississippi, USA. I’m guided by the fact that the majority of Ancestry users are from the USA. Personally, I must do mental gymnastics to “reverse” what my eyes are telling me.

And Elisabeth Hans was born 6th of September in a German location? Maybe. If I thought the second tree’s owner is actually European, I’d switch my guess to 9th of June. When we don’t know which tree owner is using which date format (and there are no sources), it’s quite possible that both these people share the same birth date.

If you’ve got a public tree, you’re probably interested in exchanging information with other genealogy hobbyists. The need for consistency is clear when trying to share and communicate with DNA matches and tree owners.

But maybe you have a private tree and wonder what benefit comes from a date format that is different to your day-to-day usage. The answer is Ancestry Search.

Ancestry Search

Ancestry’s automated search functions deserve a chapter all of their own. I’ll keep it brief here.

Dates are recorded every which way in the billions of physical records that are the source of Ancestry’s digital archives. Genealogists review and determine which date format is most typical in a particular record collection.

The process that makes these records searchable must slice and dice a slew of different date formats into a day, a month, and a year. These three date-parts are then digitally stored in a standardized format.

As you build your tree, Ancestry’s automated search process tries to match your tree entries with its digital records. So here too, it must slice your date entry into a day, a month and a year to compare with the archives. A bit of experimentation shows that there is some baked-in cleverness where Ancestry does try to “interpret” a non-standard date format in trees. I think it can figure out the day and month from something like “06/30/1905” where one of the two ambiguous figures are above 12.

But let’s go back to Richard and Elisabeth with date entries of 06/09/1905 and 09/06/1905. To prevent missing out on important records, it’s best not to feed ambiguous dates to any genealogical system. You simply avoid confusing Ancestry by using the date format of dd mmm yyyy.

Avoiding flame wars

I do steer clear of heated discussions on this topic.
These sometimes arise from an impression that Ancestry is favoring a “European” date format for all its customers.
The only possible reply to an assertion of “it’s my tree, I’ll do what I want” is: Of course it’s your tree and you can do what you want…

Problematic Entries

Here are six birth date entries I’ve pulled from public trees. From the point of view of a fellow researcher, I can make immediate sense of all but the first.

Not Ancestry date format

If you are puzzled by the “old calendar” reference – the birthplace is Poland and my guess is that the tree owner is referring to the Julian calendar.

If I work hard at interpreting that first date of “2 DEC 1717 // 22 // OCT // 1719, 1720”, my guess is that the tree owner has seen three possible dates across three years.

More importantly when Ancestry’s automated processes look for matching records – what does Ancestry guess? The right answer is: don’t make Ancestry guess.

So let’s work through how the tree owners could record the information they want to convey, while still getting the benefits of Ancestry Search.

(By the way, those really are genuine date entries from public trees of my DNA matches. I periodically download my matches to spreadsheets, so I ran a simple search on pedigree date fields that were longer than 20 characters).

How to add dates as additional sources

Often you’ll find that different sources show different dates for the same event. This is particularly the case when you are tracking a family through successive census records. The older census records are notoriously imprecise when it comes to age.

Let’s work a common example where your research finds a birth record and two census records – and all the dates are different.

The rule of thumb is to add a birth record as the main birth entry. The other dates can then be added as additional dates and sources. As usual with Ancestry, there are alternative ways to add alternative dates from the Profile page!

If you have added a birth record already, Ancestry may generate hints to various census records. Once you are satisfied Ancestry is showing you the correct record, you get the choice of choosing which census facts you want to add or overwrite into your tree. In our example, we’ve already added a birth record so we’re likely just to add the residency details. Both sources are clearly displayed on the profile but just one date is visible – like this:

How to add dates as alternative facts

You may want the birth year or date from a census record to show more clearly as an alternative date, particularly if its markedly different.

You may also want to add dates that are sourced elsewhere. The problematic entries I showed earlier mentioned sources such as a headstone or a family bible.

The Ancestry profile page lets you add facts manually and gives you a list of categories to choose from. The picture below shows the sequence for adding the details from a census record.

Add alternative facts

Headstones and Bible Sources

There isn’t a specific “bible” or “headstone” category, but you can record birth dates from these sources by choosing the “Birth” fact and adding a detailed description.
From here, you can upload a photograph to the Media section e.g. a headstone photo.

When you leave the “Preferred” box unchecked, this birth record is displayed as an alternative event.

How to enter approximate dates

I also see a lot of variety around approximate dates. Ancestry list a few ways to record these in one of their help documents. They recommend using the word “before”, “after”, or “about” in front of the date. Then they say, “you can also use ca. (circa) to indicate an estimate.”

But if you play a little with data entry, you will notice that the type-ahead suggestions look for more consistency. If you hit enter, you can of course put in whatever you like. But below are the type-ahead formats for “before”, “after” and “about”. You will also find that if you type “circa”, the type-ahead is also “Abt.”.

about or circaAbt.

So we can be sure that the automated processes know what these particular abbreviations mean.

Having your own personal abbreviations would be a mistake. I have seen app, ap, and apx – presumably all for approximate, but it’s a tall order expecting automated Search to interpret unusual codes.

You may also see other family tree software handling “between” two dates.
But Ancestry Search will not infer calculations in this way.

What’s Next?

In the next tutorial, I will take an in-depth look at entering names into your Ancestry tree in ways that are most likely to help your research.

5 thoughts on “In-Depth Guide to Ancestry – Part 2 – Date Format”

  1. I never realized there could be so much to consider with the dates. Thank you for the information and the process to add alternate dates.


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