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Genealogy HowTo
Issue: Sep 25, 2015

Can I Trust That Source?

Your eyes grow wide, your pulse quickens and you exclaim, "I have finally found it!". There it is, the break in that 25 year old brickwall. You have finally found the parents of an ancestor which will extend at least that part of your pedigree one more generation and perhaps open it up to further discoveries. But wait are there sources listed that prove the relationship and are they reliable?

The rule of thumb for testing the realiability of a genealogical source is to ask the question, "How close to the event in question is the source, who created the source, and for what purpose was the source created?" For example, a birth certificate would be considered a very trustworthy source for proving the birth date, parents names, and place of birth.

Most certificates are created at the time of birth, and are created by the doctors and nurses or midwives in attendance at the birth, and are created for the legal purpose of registering the birth for the jurisdiction in which the parents dwell.

The birth certificate becomes slightly less reliable as a source for the birth date when it is a delayed birth certificate, or a baptism, or a christening record. All of those events occurred at a later time than the actual birth, were reported by someone who may or may not have been present at the birth, and for a different objective than something having to do with a legal requirement. These documents are still good evidence, however, but may need additional sources of evidence to give support to the validity of the birth date conclusion.

Often original sources like birth certificates are hard to come by so it becomes necessary for us to use other sources to reasonably prove that genealogical connection, date, or place.

What are Sources?
In genealogy, there are 2 types of sources: primary and secondary. A primary source is a document that was created or recorded during the event. What you might call a "firsthand account". A "secondhand account" of the event would be a secondary source. Sometimes a source will be a mixture of primary and secondary depending on what part of the source you are using.

For instance, Census records are considered primary sources, but only for where the person lived in the year that the census was taken. Census records would be considered a secondary source for the birth date, since an age is given but not the exact birth year and because the reliability of the informant cannot be evaluated.

Vital records are considered primary sources except death certificates which are considered to be a primary source for date of death, cause of death, and place of death and burial. This is because the main subject of the document is the death, and information is testified to by the doctor who was there. The doctor is making an "eyewitness statement."

A death certificate is considered a secondary source for data about the date of birth, place of birth, and parents even though the document itself is considered a primary source. The secondary information was given by the informant, who probably was not present at the actual birth of the person. Even if the informant was a closely related family member, the informant may have recalled the facts from memory at a time of stress and grieving. Determining the identity of the informant can help you evaluate the accuracy of the information they provided.

Here is an example of how memory mistakes are made during the stress at the death of a loved one. When my husband's father died the informant for the obituary was my husband's sister. She gave the name of her father's father her grandfather incorrectly. She mistakenly gave her uncle's name for her grandfather's name.

State and county records are considered primary sources. These would include land records, military records, and court records. Any transaction that appears in court minutes before the actual court recording would be considered a secondary source.

Published abstracts, indexes, or transcripts are considered secondary sources even though they may have been abstracted from primary sources.

Is the Source Original or Derivative?
Original records were created at or near the time of the event and their informants were present at the event. Also an exact image of the original document would be considered an original source.

Derivative records include copied, abstracted, transcribed and compiled data. There is a greater likelihood that errors have been introduced into the record the greater the number of times the data has been copied. Say an index was created from a Census transcription. The transcription would have errors and then the index would probably have some additional errors.

Primary sources (firsthand accounts) that are also original sources (created at the time of the event) that provide direct (explicit) evidence to an event are usually considered the most reliable sources. Notice the word usually. The purpose the record was made and the motivation behind the creation of the record can affect its truthfulness. For instance, the age given on a military induction record may be false, because the individual may have lied about his age so he could get into the military. I know this happened in the military induction forms for one of my great-great grandfathers.

What about the data you find in an online family tree?
How reliable is the information you get from someone else's online family tree? Data from someone else's family tree should be considered indirect evidence, that is, it provides enough information to allow you to make a guess that it is reliable, but you will need additional evidence before you can say for sure that it is true. Even if the other person's tree has great sources listed, you should check its data thoroughly for data entry errors and other common mistakes.

Even the best genealogist can make a transposition mistake or some other kind of finger fumble or data entry error. For example, I recently was rechecking my family tree for consistency and for entries that needed additional data. I have been working on my pedigree for over 30 years and never noticed I had transposed the digits in one of the dates. Another mistake I found was I had listed the death year as the birth year for a person in my pedigree. Apparently I had never found a birth year for this person because of this error. Fortunately the person had brothers and sisters and when I looked at the children listed in order of their birth date, her date was so very far out of range it was easy to spot.

Genealogical Sources are the person, document, book, artifact, or repository through which we get data about our ancestors. In recent times, in order to fill in the gaps that are created from the lack of original sources, the genealogist may use oral histories. These are recorded or transcribed interviews with ancestors who have participated in or been witnesses to past events that would otherwise be lost to us. The modern genealogists applies the term "source" to this kind of evidence as well.

Based on the evidential sources and statements we have examined, we draw conclusions about the accuracy of the family tree we have created. Still, after all is said and done genealogy is based on opinion. That opinion may differ depending on the sources that have been used to create our family tree.

Example of a Genealogical Conclusion
For example, recently I had one of those high moments when I found my ancestor Eleanor Withrow listed in a family tree on the internet. I had searched 25 years for her parents and this pedigree showed her parents as James Withrow and Sarah Pottenger. And, yes, there appeared to be an excellent source the book "Colonial Families of the United States of America".

The researcher had copied three pages of the book in his notes as a source. Unfortunately Eleanor was not listed in the source. To make matters worse Eleanor was listed, in my opinion, with an incorrect birth date. The source was given as the Find-A-Grave website which had a picture of the gravestone.

I had visited Eleanor's grave in 1981 and the gravestone was very hard to read even then. My notes say that I finally concluded that the stone read "56 her age." This meant that her birth year was 1790.

I then used the census returns from 1820 to 1840 to determine if I could get a confirmation as to her birth year.

  • 1820 census she is listed in the 16-25 column: birth years 1795-1804
  • 1830 census she is listed in the 30-40 column: birth years 1790-1800
  • 1840 census she is listed in the 40-50 column: birth years 1790-1800
The researcher gave the birth date as 1783. If the birth date is considered to be 1783 then none of the census returns agree with this conclusion.

If the birth date is 1790 then it would be in agreement with two of the census records, the 1830 and 1840.

The researcher believed that the stone read "63 her age". This part of the stone is very hard to read. The 1846 death year is clear on the stone so I believe that is how he arrived at the conclusion that her birth year was 1783. (1846-63=1783)

As a final test of the reasonableness of the year 1790 as her birth year, I evaluated what her age would have been at the birth of her first and last child. Her first child, Amy, was born in 1813. If Eleanor was born in 1783 then she would have been 30 at the birth, but only 23 if Eleanor was born in 1790 which I believe is more likely.

Eleanor's last child was born in about 1834. If Eleanor had been born in 1783 then she would have been 51 at the birth of her last child. If Eleanor had been born in 1790 the she would have been 44 at the birth of her last child which I believe is more likely.

From all the available evidence I have concluded that the birth date of 1790 more closely matches the evidence I have examined.

This example demonstrates that each researcher usually makes a conclusion about a date, place, or relationship of an ancestor using the information they have examined.

To learn more about identifying and evaluating sources visit the "Board For Certifiation of Genealogist" and read the article "Guidelines for Evaluating Genealogical Resources" by Linda Woodward Geiger

Copyright ©: 2015 Cindy Carman. All rights reserved.
No printed reproduction of this article may be used without the express written permission of the author.
Links to this article are encouraged.

Newsletters

Select Newsletter by Issue or Topic:

Genealogy HowTo
Issue: Sep 25, 2015

Can I Trust That Source?

Your eyes grow wide, your pulse quickens and you exclaim, "I have finally found it!". There it is, the break in that 25 year old brickwall. You have finally found the parents of an ancestor which will extend at least that part of your pedigree one more generation and perhaps open it up to further discoveries. But wait are there sources listed that prove the relationship and are they reliable?

The rule of thumb for testing the realiability of a genealogical source is to ask the question, "How close to the event in question is the source, who created the source, and for what purpose was the source created?" For example, a birth certificate would be considered a very trustworthy source for proving the birth date, parents names, and place of birth.

Most certificates are created at the time of birth, and are created by the doctors and nurses or midwives in attendance at the birth, and are created for the legal purpose of registering the birth for the jurisdiction in which the parents dwell.

The birth certificate becomes slightly less reliable as a source for the birth date when it is a delayed birth certificate, or a baptism, or a christening record. All of those events occurred at a later time than the actual birth, were reported by someone who may or may not have been present at the birth, and for a different objective than something having to do with a legal requirement. These documents are still good evidence, however, but may need additional sources of evidence to give support to the validity of the birth date conclusion.

Often original sources like birth certificates are hard to come by so it becomes necessary for us to use other sources to reasonably prove that genealogical connection, date, or place.

What are Sources?
In genealogy, there are 2 types of sources: primary and secondary. A primary source is a document that was created or recorded during the event. What you might call a "firsthand account". A "secondhand account" of the event would be a secondary source. Sometimes a source will be a mixture of primary and secondary depending on what part of the source you are using.

For instance, Census records are considered primary sources, but only for where the person lived in the year that the census was taken. Census records would be considered a secondary source for the birth date, since an age is given but not the exact birth year and because the reliability of the informant cannot be evaluated.

Vital records are considered primary sources except death certificates which are considered to be a primary source for date of death, cause of death, and place of death and burial. This is because the main subject of the document is the death, and information is testified to by the doctor who was there. The doctor is making an "eyewitness statement."

A death certificate is considered a secondary source for data about the date of birth, place of birth, and parents even though the document itself is considered a primary source. The secondary information was given by the informant, who probably was not present at the actual birth of the person. Even if the informant was a closely related family member, the informant may have recalled the facts from memory at a time of stress and grieving. Determining the identity of the informant can help you evaluate the accuracy of the information they provided.

Here is an example of how memory mistakes are made during the stress at the death of a loved one. When my husband's father died the informant for the obituary was my husband's sister. She gave the name of her father's father her grandfather incorrectly. She mistakenly gave her uncle's name for her grandfather's name.

State and county records are considered primary sources. These would include land records, military records, and court records. Any transaction that appears in court minutes before the actual court recording would be considered a secondary source.

Published abstracts, indexes, or transcripts are considered secondary sources even though they may have been abstracted from primary sources.

Is the Source Original or Derivative?
Original records were created at or near the time of the event and their informants were present at the event. Also an exact image of the original document would be considered an original source.

Derivative records include copied, abstracted, transcribed and compiled data. There is a greater likelihood that errors have been introduced into the record the greater the number of times the data has been copied. Say an index was created from a Census transcription. The transcription would have errors and then the index would probably have some additional errors.

Primary sources (firsthand accounts) that are also original sources (created at the time of the event) that provide direct (explicit) evidence to an event are usually considered the most reliable sources. Notice the word usually. The purpose the record was made and the motivation behind the creation of the record can affect its truthfulness. For instance, the age given on a military induction record may be false, because the individual may have lied about his age so he could get into the military. I know this happened in the military induction forms for one of my great-great grandfathers.

What about the data you find in an online family tree?
How reliable is the information you get from someone else's online family tree? Data from someone else's family tree should be considered indirect evidence, that is, it provides enough information to allow you to make a guess that it is reliable, but you will need additional evidence before you can say for sure that it is true. Even if the other person's tree has great sources listed, you should check its data thoroughly for data entry errors and other common mistakes.

Even the best genealogist can make a transposition mistake or some other kind of finger fumble or data entry error. For example, I recently was rechecking my family tree for consistency and for entries that needed additional data. I have been working on my pedigree for over 30 years and never noticed I had transposed the digits in one of the dates. Another mistake I found was I had listed the death year as the birth year for a person in my pedigree. Apparently I had never found a birth year for this person because of this error. Fortunately the person had brothers and sisters and when I looked at the children listed in order of their birth date, her date was so very far out of range it was easy to spot.

Genealogical Sources are the person, document, book, artifact, or repository through which we get data about our ancestors. In recent times, in order to fill in the gaps that are created from the lack of original sources, the genealogist may use oral histories. These are recorded or transcribed interviews with ancestors who have participated in or been witnesses to past events that would otherwise be lost to us. The modern genealogists applies the term "source" to this kind of evidence as well.

Based on the evidential sources and statements we have examined, we draw conclusions about the accuracy of the family tree we have created. Still, after all is said and done genealogy is based on opinion. That opinion may differ depending on the sources that have been used to create our family tree.

Example of a Genealogical Conclusion
For example, recently I had one of those high moments when I found my ancestor Eleanor Withrow listed in a family tree on the internet. I had searched 25 years for her parents and this pedigree showed her parents as James Withrow and Sarah Pottenger. And, yes, there appeared to be an excellent source the book "Colonial Families of the United States of America".

The researcher had copied three pages of the book in his notes as a source. Unfortunately Eleanor was not listed in the source. To make matters worse Eleanor was listed, in my opinion, with an incorrect birth date. The source was given as the Find-A-Grave website which had a picture of the gravestone.

I had visited Eleanor's grave in 1981 and the gravestone was very hard to read even then. My notes say that I finally concluded that the stone read "56 her age." This meant that her birth year was 1790.

I then used the census returns from 1820 to 1840 to determine if I could get a confirmation as to her birth year.

  • 1820 census she is listed in the 16-25 column: birth years 1795-1804
  • 1830 census she is listed in the 30-40 column: birth years 1790-1800
  • 1840 census she is listed in the 40-50 column: birth years 1790-1800
The researcher gave the birth date as 1783. If the birth date is considered to be 1783 then none of the census returns agree with this conclusion.

If the birth date is 1790 then it would be in agreement with two of the census records, the 1830 and 1840.

The researcher believed that the stone read "63 her age". This part of the stone is very hard to read. The 1846 death year is clear on the stone so I believe that is how he arrived at the conclusion that her birth year was 1783. (1846-63=1783)

As a final test of the reasonableness of the year 1790 as her birth year, I evaluated what her age would have been at the birth of her first and last child. Her first child, Amy, was born in 1813. If Eleanor was born in 1783 then she would have been 30 at the birth, but only 23 if Eleanor was born in 1790 which I believe is more likely.

Eleanor's last child was born in about 1834. If Eleanor had been born in 1783 then she would have been 51 at the birth of her last child. If Eleanor had been born in 1790 the she would have been 44 at the birth of her last child which I believe is more likely.

From all the available evidence I have concluded that the birth date of 1790 more closely matches the evidence I have examined.

This example demonstrates that each researcher usually makes a conclusion about a date, place, or relationship of an ancestor using the information they have examined.

To learn more about identifying and evaluating sources visit the "Board For Certifiation of Genealogist" and read the article "Guidelines for Evaluating Genealogical Resources" by Linda Woodward Geiger

Copyright ©: 2015 Cindy Carman. All rights reserved.
No printed reproduction of this article may be used without the express written permission of the author.
Links to this article are encouraged.

Newsletters

Select Newsletter by Issue or Topic:

Genealogy HowTo
Issue: Sep 25, 2015

Can I Trust That Source?

Your eyes grow wide, your pulse quickens and you exclaim, "I have finally found it!". There it is, the break in that 25 year old brickwall. You have finally found the parents of an ancestor which will extend at least that part of your pedigree one more generation and perhaps open it up to further discoveries. But wait are there sources listed that prove the relationship and are they reliable?

The rule of thumb for testing the realiability of a genealogical source is to ask the question, "How close to the event in question is the source, who created the source, and for what purpose was the source created?" For example, a birth certificate would be considered a very trustworthy source for proving the birth date, parents names, and place of birth.

Most certificates are created at the time of birth, and are created by the doctors and nurses or midwives in attendance at the birth, and are created for the legal purpose of registering the birth for the jurisdiction in which the parents dwell.

The birth certificate becomes slightly less reliable as a source for the birth date when it is a delayed birth certificate, or a baptism, or a christening record. All of those events occurred at a later time than the actual birth, were reported by someone who may or may not have been present at the birth, and for a different objective than something having to do with a legal requirement. These documents are still good evidence, however, but may need additional sources of evidence to give support to the validity of the birth date conclusion.

Often original sources like birth certificates are hard to come by so it becomes necessary for us to use other sources to reasonably prove that genealogical connection, date, or place.

What are Sources?
In genealogy, there are 2 types of sources: primary and secondary. A primary source is a document that was created or recorded during the event. What you might call a "firsthand account". A "secondhand account" of the event would be a secondary source. Sometimes a source will be a mixture of primary and secondary depending on what part of the source you are using.

For instance, Census records are considered primary sources, but only for where the person lived in the year that the census was taken. Census records would be considered a secondary source for the birth date, since an age is given but not the exact birth year and because the reliability of the informant cannot be evaluated.

Vital records are considered primary sources except death certificates which are considered to be a primary source for date of death, cause of death, and place of death and burial. This is because the main subject of the document is the death, and information is testified to by the doctor who was there. The doctor is making an "eyewitness statement."

A death certificate is considered a secondary source for data about the date of birth, place of birth, and parents even though the document itself is considered a primary source. The secondary information was given by the informant, who probably was not present at the actual birth of the person. Even if the informant was a closely related family member, the informant may have recalled the facts from memory at a time of stress and grieving. Determining the identity of the informant can help you evaluate the accuracy of the information they provided.

Here is an example of how memory mistakes are made during the stress at the death of a loved one. When my husband's father died the informant for the obituary was my husband's sister. She gave the name of her father's father her grandfather incorrectly. She mistakenly gave her uncle's name for her grandfather's name.

State and county records are considered primary sources. These would include land records, military records, and court records. Any transaction that appears in court minutes before the actual court recording would be considered a secondary source.

Published abstracts, indexes, or transcripts are considered secondary sources even though they may have been abstracted from primary sources.

Is the Source Original or Derivative?
Original records were created at or near the time of the event and their informants were present at the event. Also an exact image of the original document would be considered an original source.

Derivative records include copied, abstracted, transcribed and compiled data. There is a greater likelihood that errors have been introduced into the record the greater the number of times the data has been copied. Say an index was created from a Census transcription. The transcription would have errors and then the index would probably have some additional errors.

Primary sources (firsthand accounts) that are also original sources (created at the time of the event) that provide direct (explicit) evidence to an event are usually considered the most reliable sources. Notice the word usually. The purpose the record was made and the motivation behind the creation of the record can affect its truthfulness. For instance, the age given on a military induction record may be false, because the individual may have lied about his age so he could get into the military. I know this happened in the military induction forms for one of my great-great grandfathers.

What about the data you find in an online family tree?
How reliable is the information you get from someone else's online family tree? Data from someone else's family tree should be considered indirect evidence, that is, it provides enough information to allow you to make a guess that it is reliable, but you will need additional evidence before you can say for sure that it is true. Even if the other person's tree has great sources listed, you should check its data thoroughly for data entry errors and other common mistakes.

Even the best genealogist can make a transposition mistake or some other kind of finger fumble or data entry error. For example, I recently was rechecking my family tree for consistency and for entries that needed additional data. I have been working on my pedigree for over 30 years and never noticed I had transposed the digits in one of the dates. Another mistake I found was I had listed the death year as the birth year for a person in my pedigree. Apparently I had never found a birth year for this person because of this error. Fortunately the person had brothers and sisters and when I looked at the children listed in order of their birth date, her date was so very far out of range it was easy to spot.

Genealogical Sources are the person, document, book, artifact, or repository through which we get data about our ancestors. In recent times, in order to fill in the gaps that are created from the lack of original sources, the genealogist may use oral histories. These are recorded or transcribed interviews with ancestors who have participated in or been witnesses to past events that would otherwise be lost to us. The modern genealogists applies the term "source" to this kind of evidence as well.

Based on the evidential sources and statements we have examined, we draw conclusions about the accuracy of the family tree we have created. Still, after all is said and done genealogy is based on opinion. That opinion may differ depending on the sources that have been used to create our family tree.

Example of a Genealogical Conclusion
For example, recently I had one of those high moments when I found my ancestor Eleanor Withrow listed in a family tree on the internet. I had searched 25 years for her parents and this pedigree showed her parents as James Withrow and Sarah Pottenger. And, yes, there appeared to be an excellent source the book "Colonial Families of the United States of America".

The researcher had copied three pages of the book in his notes as a source. Unfortunately Eleanor was not listed in the source. To make matters worse Eleanor was listed, in my opinion, with an incorrect birth date. The source was given as the Find-A-Grave website which had a picture of the gravestone.

I had visited Eleanor's grave in 1981 and the gravestone was very hard to read even then. My notes say that I finally concluded that the stone read "56 her age." This meant that her birth year was 1790.

I then used the census returns from 1820 to 1840 to determine if I could get a confirmation as to her birth year.

  • 1820 census she is listed in the 16-25 column: birth years 1795-1804
  • 1830 census she is listed in the 30-40 column: birth years 1790-1800
  • 1840 census she is listed in the 40-50 column: birth years 1790-1800
The researcher gave the birth date as 1783. If the birth date is considered to be 1783 then none of the census returns agree with this conclusion.

If the birth date is 1790 then it would be in agreement with two of the census records, the 1830 and 1840.

The researcher believed that the stone read "63 her age". This part of the stone is very hard to read. The 1846 death year is clear on the stone so I believe that is how he arrived at the conclusion that her birth year was 1783. (1846-63=1783)

As a final test of the reasonableness of the year 1790 as her birth year, I evaluated what her age would have been at the birth of her first and last child. Her first child, Amy, was born in 1813. If Eleanor was born in 1783 then she would have been 30 at the birth, but only 23 if Eleanor was born in 1790 which I believe is more likely.

Eleanor's last child was born in about 1834. If Eleanor had been born in 1783 then she would have been 51 at the birth of her last child. If Eleanor had been born in 1790 the she would have been 44 at the birth of her last child which I believe is more likely.

From all the available evidence I have concluded that the birth date of 1790 more closely matches the evidence I have examined.

This example demonstrates that each researcher usually makes a conclusion about a date, place, or relationship of an ancestor using the information they have examined.

To learn more about identifying and evaluating sources visit the "Board For Certifiation of Genealogist" and read the article "Guidelines for Evaluating Genealogical Resources" by Linda Woodward Geiger

Copyright ©: 2015 Cindy Carman. All rights reserved.
No printed reproduction of this article may be used without the express written permission of the author.
Links to this article are encouraged.

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