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A Good Detective Considers the Source

Evidence is the key componenet to the validity of your genealogical research.


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Evidence is the key component to the validity of your genealogical research. When a date or a place is entered on your family tree with no proof, its only usefulness to you is as a clue to lead you to another source. The type of proof that you gather lends credibility to your research; this article discusses the use of primary and secondary sources.

Primary Sources

Primary sources are considered the most accurate proof. These records were created on or near the date of the event. The closer a record corresponds to an event, the greater the likelihood of true information.  Although considered the most important source, it must be remembered that primary sources are primary only to a specific event, such as a birth or marriage. Any other information found on the source should be verified and used as a guide to provide clues to other research. Familiar primary sources include birth and marriage certificates. Bibles may or may not be considered primary sources, depending on certain factors.

Birth certificates are usually accurate since their purpose is to record the event. Unfortunately, it is impossible in many states to find a birth certificate before 1895. Many people had to get delayed birth certificates for social security purposes and for veteran benefits.  These delayed birth certificates are considered secondary sources because they were usually issued years after the event. 

It must also be remembered that human error can alter primary source material.  My mother's birth certificate is an example. The name on the birth certificate states Hilda, but her name was Wilda. The clerk went back to the birth certificate, crossed out the name Hilda and wrote Wilda. Although the error was corrected in a manner of speaking, this is not always the case. Primary sources may carry erroneous information and should be verified by additional source material.

Marriage certificates are primary sources. Licenses were issued to a couple prior to the marriage, then signed and dated by the presiding official. Sometimes a license is filed with no corresponding marriage. Your ancestors may have changed their minds, or they may have experienced a family tragedy, death or a move. My great-grandmother and her second husband filed for a marriage license in 1855, but another license with the actual marriage dates is filed in 1858. The actual transcription of the marriage license to the official books by the clerk makes the document a secondary source. Always remember that errors may be made by the clerk during the transcription.

Bible entries may be primary sources, but quite often the dates are recorded after the fact. Two easy indicators that can prove the authenticity of the source include the following: Check the publication date and check the ink.  The publication date is vital, as any information entered before the date is a secondary source. If only one type of ink is used, it may be assumed that all the entries were made at the same time, thus becoming a secondary source. Also, remember that ball point pens did not become popular until after World War II, so if entries prior to 1945 are in ball point ink, it is safe to assume they are secondary sources.

Another important point to remember is that an index or compilation of primary source information may or may not be accurate. Once again, human error may occur in yet another transcription of original material. Spelling mistakes or simple errors of sight may lead you on a wild goose chase. If at all possible, try to confirm the event with original material. It is not always possible to travel to the actual physical source, but microfilm or digitalized original records may provide the necessary verification. Secondary sources can play a role in alerting you to conflicts in information.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are usually recorded after the actual event, although are not considered to be as reliable as primary sources, often provide invaluable clues to aid your research. Secondary sources are often based on recollection or hearsay, which may or may not be accurate.  All secondary source information should be analyzed to provide other avenues of research.

Some common secondary sources include obituaries, tombstones, death certificates, and census records.  Other secondary sources include oral history, local history, newspapers, yearbooks, membership lists for fraternal and military organizations and school records. One researcher confirmed the presence of her ancestor in a county with a secondary source by looking in the "Brand Book" which listed cattle brands for each family.

Obituaries often prove useful because they may provide names, places, dates, biographies and survivors. Unfortunately, obituaries include information given by the survivors, so the information may not be accurate. Another possible mistake may occur with the copy clerk when transcribing the information to the paper. Be sure to peruse obituaries carefully and try to verify all information provided.

Tombstones provide genealogical clues, but again, they must be used with a grain of salt. Always try to locate other documents, such as birth, marriage, death certificates, military, organizations, or church records, to verify tombstone dates.  Remember that tombstones may have been placed years after the deaths.

Death certificates are primary sources for a person's death, but the other information on the death certificate, provided by the family member, friend or neighbor, is considered a secondary source. The parents names and places of birth may or may not be absolutely correct, but the clues should be followed through to the source. By using that secondary information, a researcher may find a treasure trove of information in a geographic location not considered up to that point.

Census records are another example of an invaluable secondary source. The information on the census is often the only clue to an ancestor's existence that can be found. Census information by default may be flawed because it was told to the census taker who may or may not have heard correctly or who may or may not write it down correctly. Often names were spelled the way they were heard.  Two instances of this in my own family  include the name first Harren which was spelled Herring and the last name Fowler which was spelled Foller. Ages may not be accurate, so they must be double-checked.  Sometimes the place of birth was marked the same as the preceding household.  All that aside, census records are absolutely vital to good genealogical research. These records, as should all your genealogical records, should be verified by more than one source, if possible.

Always try to locate a primary source but use secondary sources to lend credibility and to sift out all the clues they may provide. Try to verify all your secondary sources. Quite often, primary sources cannot be located for a variety of reasons.  The two most common are the flooding or burning of a courthouse.  Some documents do not get recorded, once again for a variety of reasons that may go unfound.  The more evidence available, primary or secondary, to document an event or to make the case for an assumption, the more credible your family tree. Use all the primary and secondary source information that you can locate.   With these documents, your family tree evidence will be validated.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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