Proof Argument: Determining George W West’s Birthdate

Proof Argument determining George W West's birth date

Part of my genealogy education has been writing proof arguments. I was able to determine my brick wall ancestor George W. West’s birthdate using a really cool document known informally as “The Joe Brown Census” and some intense documentary research. Here’s what I came up with.

Proving George W. West’s Birthdate

Question: What was the birthdate of George W. West, born 1818-1821 in Spartanburg District, SC and died 12 May 1895 in Forsyth County, GA?

George W. West is listed in various census enumerations as being born anywhere from about 1818 to 1821. One unusual source provides compelling evidence that he was born in July 1818.

A 14 December 1863 Act of the Georgia General Assembly required an enumeration of “all free white males between sixteen and sixty not already serving in the Confederate or State service.” An aide-de-camp with the rank of Colonel from each senatorial district was tasked with taking the census, which was supposed to include, among other facts, each man’s age and state or country of birth.1 This census is known colloquially as the “Joe Brown Census” because it was suggested by then-governor Joseph E. Brown.

The aide-de-camp for Forsyth County in Georgia’s 39th Senatorial District went above and beyond the call. Not only did he record each man’s age and place of birth, he recorded their exact age down to the month and their county or city of birth as well as the state. The entry for George W. West (listed as “George West”) states that he is 45 years and six months old and was born in Spartanburg, SC. 2

There are two problems with this census:  

  • We do not know who gave the information about George W. West’s birthdate and place to the enumerator
  • The census is not dated 

Through context, both issues can be satisfactorily resolved to show that George W. West was likely born in July 1818. 

The Mysterious Informant

The enumerator does not list an informant for the information on the 1864 Census for Re-Organizing the Georgia Militia. However, this informant was likely George W. West himself or someone who knew him well. George’s son Paschal West is also enumerated in the same census and his birthplace is given as Union District, SC.3 Someone less familiar with the family might have assumed both men were born in the same place. 

The Lack of a Census Date

The original census document, viewable through the Georgia Archives, is not dated. However, other clues indicate when the census took place. For one, the wording of the law stressed expediency. It directed that aides-de-camp were required to begin their enumeration “four days after being notified of his appointment.”4) This was, after all, war time.

Second, on 4 March 1864, George W. West was listed as a 3rd Lieutenant in the Roster of the Officers of the 39th Military District, Forsyth County, GA.5 This sets the census sometime between December 1863 and March 1864.

Third, the census enumerated prominent men of the district. Three of the men have listings on FindaGrave with tombstone photos showing their birthdates. Correlating their birthdates with the month and year age in the 1864 Census for Re-Organizing the Georgia Militia clearly shows that the census was taken in January 1864.

Table 1Correlating the Birthdates of Prominent Men of Forsyth County, GA with their Ages on the 1864 Census
Enumerated ManAge on CensusBirthdate on TombstoneTombstone Birthdate Plus Age in Census
James Milforda50 years, 3 months13 Oct 1813January 1864
Dr. John Hockenhullb32 years, 0 months22 Jan 1832January 1864
Joel T. Heardc37 years, 3 months27 Oct 1826January 1864
a Dt07. Memorial #15054367 for James A. Milford; database with images, FindaGrave (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/15054367/james-a-milford: accessed 28 Oct 2023). 
b Dt07. Memorial #15046008 for Dr. John Hockenhull; database with images, FindaGrave (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/15046008/john-hockenhull: accessed 28 Oct 2023). 
Dt07. Memorial #13681977 for Joel Thomas Heard; database with images, FindaGrave (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/13681977/joel-thomas-heard: accessed 28 Oct 2023). 

The evidence shows that the census was taken in January 1864. Subtracting 45 years and 6 months leaves us with George W. West’s approximate birth month and year as July 1818. 

Interestingly, one conflict presents itself with George W. West’s son Paschal West. In the same census, he is enumerated as being 17 years and 9 months old. Subtracting that age from January 1864 would make him born in April 1846. But his tombstone lists his birthdate as 16 April 1845. 

Though, also according to his tombstone, Paschal West died in Yell County, Arkansas in 1929, no death certificate, obituary or other death record has yet been located for him to add additional evidence of his birth year.6 Further, since men aged 16-60 were to be asked to serve in the local militia, it’s unlikely that Paschal (or someone close to him) lied about his age to help him avoid military service, as either birth year would make him eligible for the militia.

Paschal West’s age at the time of his enumeration in 1864 is more likely to be his correct age than a later tombstone. Whether Paschal West was 17 years and 9 months old or 18 years and 9 months old, subtracting 9 months from January still equals April. This only reinforces the evidence that the District 38, Forsyth County, Georgia 1864 Census for Re-Organizing the Georgia Militia was taken in January 1864.

Because the census was almost certainly taken in January 1864, and because the informant knew the family well enough to know that George W. West and his son Paschal P. West were born in different South Carolina districts, we can extrapolate that George W. West was likely born in about July 1818 in Spartanburg District, South Carolina.

How can I improve this proof argument?

You’ll notice in the citations that several points in this proof argument rely on derivative sources. To strengthen it, I would like to replace those with original sources where possible.

The March 1864 Militia List

This list was found in a book by prominent Forsyth County, Georgia historian Garland C. Bagley. Unfortunately the book doesn’t include a source for this info. I tend to trust it, because Bagley has proven himself a trustworthy guy on this topic, but I also want to see that original. (Plus, maybe other information can be gleaned from it!) The Georgia Archives didn’t have any Forsyth County, Georgia militia lists, so my next stop is the Forsyth County Historical Society when I can get over there. Meanwhile, in order to learn new strategies around military records, I’m taking IGHR Course 6 – Military Records I: The Colonial Era to the Vietnam War to fill this gap in my genealogy education.

Paschal West’s FindaGrave Entry

Paschal’s death is as bit of a mystery. I’ve looked page by page through scanned Yell County, AR death records from 1929. I’ve waited 6 months for the Arkansas State Archives to look up a potential obituary in the newspapers of the time–with no results. I’ve simply had no luck finding a death record for Paschal outside of his tombstone. I even took the chance to bend the ear of someone with the Arkansas Genealogical Society while I was at RootsTech to ask about the completeness of death records in the 1920s. You’d think I’d have more luck finding a document that should be there and should have been created less than 100 years ago, but alas. No Arkansas death index searches have helped me, but I can expand the search to counties/states where Paschal’s children lived, and move on from searches to page-by-page lookups in case he happened to die while away from home. I’m still hopeful I find a death certificate for Paschal because it would be one of just two death certificates (the other for his brother George W. West, Jr.) that might name his parents, George West and Jennet Cowen.

The Other FindaGrave Entries

I also used FindaGrave entries for other prominent men in the area. As you can see above, all three birthdates correlated to the census taking place in January 1864. Still, I’d rather find original documentation of these birthdates. And since each of these three men were prominent (read: wealthy) that documentation is more likely to exist than it is for someone like my regular guy, George W. West. Even without this, though, it seems clear that the census was taken expediently after the law requiring it was passed in December 1863.

A Final Suspicion

One other suspicion that I didn’t include in the proof argument is that 45 years and 6 months is a very round number. They’re both just kind of… middling. So if George W. West weren’t quite aware of his birthdate, he may have said something like, “I’m in my middle forties or so, and I was born in the summer.” From there, perhaps the enumerator wrote down 45 years and 6 months to capture the well…essence of middle age.

However, the rest of the document contradicts this suspicion. Other men only have a year listed, with no month. so it’s likely that those month-less men are the ones who weren’t sure of their birthdays.

I’m currently working with another family who were largely illiterate, and they do appear to have provided varying birthdates for varying documents. George W. West was literate, though, and since his entry in the “Joe Brown Census” provides an age in years and months, I tend to believe that he, or some other informant close to him, believed he was providing his correct age.

Do you have any suggestions on improving this proof argument? I’m all ears! Meanwhile, are you working on any proof arguments of your own? I’d love to hear about them!

More about George W. West:

  1. “Militia Enrollment Lists, 1864,” Georgia Archives Virtual Vault, (https://vault.georgiaarchives.org/digital/collection/1864 : accessed 28 Oct 2023). []
  2. Militia Enrollment Lists, Militia Records, Adjutant General, RG 22-1-4, Georgia Archives, Morrow, Georgia; “Militia Enrollment Lists, 1864”; digital image, Georgia Archives Virtual Vault (https://vault.georgiaarchives.org/digital/collection/1864/id/1032/rec/323 : accessed 14 Sep 2023), Forsyth County, Georgia > Militia District 835 > p. 1a, entry for George West. []
  3. Militia Enrollment Lists, Militia Records, Adjutant General, RG 22-1-4, Georgia Archives, Morrow, Georgia; “Militia Enrollment Lists, 1864”; digital image, Georgia Archives Virtual Vault (https://vault.georgiaarchives.org/digital/collection/1864/id/1032/rec/323 : accessed 14 Sep 2023), Forsyth County, Georgia > Militia District 835 > p. 1a, entry for Paschal West. []
  4. Acts of the General Assembly of the State of Georgia Passed in Milledgeville at an Annual Session in November and December, 1863; Also Extra Session of 1864: Electronic Edition,” University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Documenting the American South, (https://docsouth.unc.edu/imls/gagenas/georgia.html : accessed 28 Oct 2023. []
  5. Bagley, Garland C. History of Forsyth County, Georgia 1832-1932 Volume I.  (Easley, SC: Southern Historical Press, 1985), 491. This source is a reprint of the original militia list. The original has not yet been located. []
  6. Lady in Mourning. Memorial # 139356075 for Paschal P. West; database with images, FindaGrave (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/139356075/paschal-p-west: accessed 28 Oct 2023). []
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