Probably your first step in researching your family tree was to interview some of your relatives. After all, they know things about family members that you do not. Your older relatives probably have memories of relatives who lived before you were born, or at least when you were very young.
But memories are a funny thing. They are personal, and they are influenced by time and individual perspective. Two people can remember the same invent in two different ways. It's not only a difference in point of view; it's also affected by age and the very ability to remember things accurately, not to mention that some people are natural story tellers with an inclination to embellish the facts. We have all seen that some young adults seem able to remember almost everything that happens, while others, of the same age, have trouble recalling details about things that happened just last week. The longer the time that has passed since an event took place, the more likely that memories of the event could be vague, confused, or partially forgotten. Even though part of the recollection may be accurate, it may not be entirely factual.
This is why genealogists are so insistent upon sources. Unless something can be verified, you don't really know if it is accurate, or even if it is true. So how do you go about verifying?
Obviously, the most accurate sources are usually those that are official written documentation, such as birth certificates or census records. But there are times when a census taker misunderstood a name, or missed a family who were not at home at the time of the census visit, just like the names of immigrants were often heard incorrectly by immigration workers and written down as mistaken interpretations of the original name. This is all by the way of caution against even the best documented third-party information you come across.
So how do you know what to believe? It takes some practice, but an experienced ancestor finder learns to develop intuition about accounts of their family history. For instance, you learn that the keeper of a family Bible has recorded the significant family events, and each one you are able to verify is accurate. This allows you to lean more toward trusting accounts in that person's personal diary, as well.
Another way to affirm the validity of any information is to locate evidence from another source that corroborates it. This means that data can be pieced together from listening to your Great-Uncle Bob's stories, an Internet genealogy site without sources, and checking some of the names and dates against original written records.
Keep in mind that, just because it is old and written, doesn't make it true. Much of the information you have access to today simply wasn't available in the past, so a person writing about events of the time may be unaware or incorrect about some of them.
You might also want to be wary of transcribed versions of old books or other documents. Each time something is transcribed, there is an opportunity for an error. If information has gone through multiple transcriptions, there is an even greater likelihood of errors. Even documents that have been electronically scanned by optical character recognition equipment can often "interpret" letters and words incorrectly, and make small changes to the meaning of the original. Think how much your research of a particular ancestor could be thrown off simply by having the year of birth misread and written as a much later year.
What do you do about all this? Well, the answer is not excessive perfectionism, because some information simply isn't available. Nor is it acceptable to lose patience and begin writing down the first account you uncover as fact. The pursuit of genealogy necessitates taking things with a grain of salt until they can be verified. Many stories and accounts are great leads that point out potential avenues of research, but they are not fact until you verify them.
Researching your own family tree is a learn-as-you-go process, so any advice you can pick up along the way can save you hours of frustration.
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