Is your genealogy accurate? Genealogists strive for accuracy. We want to be sure we have the right great-grandmother, the correct year of birth or death, the correct parents for our 3rd great-grandfather.
We spend hours, days, weeks, even months looking for original sources. But what are original records and sources? They are documents and records that were created at or around the time that an event occurred. These include such documents as vital statistic registrations, newspapers, tax lists, court records, church records, land records, funeral home documents, census records, personal letters and diaries, and other more obscure items such as funeral cards, coffin plates, and so on.
Primary versus Secondary Information
An original source might contain primary information or secondary information.
- Primary information is information given by a witness to the event, or a knowledgeable participant.
- Secondary information is information provided by someone who was not a witness to the event.
Our joy at finding such important records results in what is often referred to as the “Genealogy Happy Dance!”
But beware! Original sources are not always accurate. As careful and methodical genealogists we must consider the possibility that there may be errors in a record. What are the ways this can happen?
- The informant (the person giving the information) might not be the person who is participating in the event. For example, it’s obvious that the deceased does not provide the personal information on a death registration. A third party such as a son, a daughter, a spouse, a family friend, a doctor or other invidividual provides personal information about the deceased.
- The informant may not know the answers and may thus provide incorrect details. Don’t assume, for example, that details on a tombstone are correct. Remember that the information on a tombstone was almost certainly provided by a family member, who may or may not have known the correct details. For example, my great-grandfather’s stone was erected by his daughter who told the stonemaker the wrong birth date for her father. His baptismal record provides his birth and his baptism year which was two years before the date his daughter gave.
- The informant might lie. This is especially true where ages are concerned. Sometimes brides subtract a few years from their ages when asked by the minister at their marriage.
- The clerk recording the information may not hear the response correctly and may enter it incorrectly.
- The information on the record might have been entered after the event took place. Memories are often wrong, and the recorder is relying on memory. Here’s an example – a minister or priest performs a baptism but doesn’t enter it immediately in the register book. A day or two later he sits down to enter the past week’s baptisms, marriages and burials. He forgets the exact day little Henry Smith was baptised. Worse, he can’t recall the first name of the child he baptised, he only knows their parents’ names. But he thinks it was James so he records that in the book. In actuality James is the name of an older brother and the child he baptised was called John.
- The informant might be confused by the question. In my own family tree, my great-grandmother's official government death registration is incorrect. Her parents' names are wrong. Since I already knew who her parents were (Isaac Vollick & Lydia Jamieson) from other genealogy sources, I was completely bewildered by seeing her parents’ names recorded as Stephen Vollick and Mary.
Then it dawned on me - Stephen was my great grandmother's husband's first name (Stephen Peer). Mary was my great grandmother's own name. (Mary Vollick)
But who was the informant? The informant was Mary's 17-year old son. Her husband had died when their son was a toddler, and their older children were married and gone. The task of answering the official questions fell to her 17-year old son who had cared for her in her final days.
It is easy to see how the young boy, when asked by a government clerk "Father's name?" (meaning father of the deceased), might have replied "Stephen", for in fact Stephen was HIS own father's name.
The question "Mother's name?" referring to the mother of the deceased, would be answered with "Mary" which was HIS mother's name.
And thus the official death registration for parents of Mary (Peer) Vollick daughter of Isaac and Lydia Vollick, is forever rendered as Stephen and Mary Vollick.
So be cautious when you encounter an original source that simply doesn't match other reliable sources. Investigate! Think! Don't just accept the new details without further research to prove or disprove them.
You can read more about original sources here:
- Guidelines for Evaluating Genealogical Resources by Linda Woodward Geiger on the BCG website
- Genealogy Standards: 50th Anniversary Edition (2014)
- Mastering Genealogical Proof by Thomas W. Jones
You can also watch these classes in the Legacy Family Tree Webinars library:
- Getting the Most from Your Records: Putting Them Through the Wringer!
- Evidence: Guidelines for Evaluating Genealogical Evidence
Lorine McGinnis Schulze is a Canadian genealogist who has been involved with genealogy and history for more than thirty years. In 1996 Lorine created the Olive Tree Genealogy website and its companion blog. Lorine is the author of many published genealogical and historical articles and books.