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Original Sources: Are They Always Accurate?

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!”

Original Sources: Are They Always Accurate?
Original Sources image by Lorine McGinnis Schulze

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?

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. The clerk recording the information may not hear the response correctly and may enter it incorrectly.
  1. 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.
  1. 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:

You can also watch these classes in the Legacy Family Tree Webinars library:


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.





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Don't forget about adoption. All of our publicly available vital records are amended (read falsified) to identify our adoptive parents. Without the actual adoption papers or original birth certificates we are without true identity.

This is so very true! I wish more people new to genealogy, would see this and understand. Family trees are getting all jumbled, by these new to the hobby, people. As much as I love Ancestry, and Family Search, records are being messed up daily! People don't want to prove anything, they just want their "tree" to go back to a king of anywhere in the "Old World", or so it seems. They are offered "free access", for so many days, and it is let's find someone with my grandfather's first and last names. Doesn't matter, birth dates, locations, etc. Just a name and hope it goes really far back, for bragging rights!
Sorry to get on my soap box....But thank you for bringing these little known facts to light!

I have two Missouri DCs from brothers of my great grandmother, wherein it is stated that their father was named Elizabeth! Great Gramma's DC from Colorado says her father was "L.B.". It took a bunch of sleuthing to find his name was "Lisbon". But I understand...if you were asked the name of the father of your recently-dear-departed, the person asking might mistake Lisbon for Elizabeth. But how can it happen years apart, in two different facilities????

It isn't just brides who might subtract or add a few years to their age - I see many examples of grooms who added a few years when young, or subtract some years at a second marriage to a much younger woman.

SOOO true, I intend on printing this off and keeping it with my records so our kids will realize that everything in PRINT is not necessarly correct. Took me YEARS to find this out. I thought if it was in a BOOK it was correct :). Wrong dc/b c have happened to me so many times I can barely count that high!!! Lu Smith

Absolutely correct David and I should have noted that in my article! Thanks for reminding all of us that all genders might lie about any fact - their age, their name... whatever they want to keep hidden

The debated subject I see most often is Bible records as primary sources. My own view is that concerning the probable date of the entry of the record in the Bible according to the writing utensil most likely used. And entries put in after the fact are secondary, not primary, source information. Others have told me that Bible records were entered by family members who would KNOW that information. My own viewpoint is that birth information in the 1700s which was entered in ballpoint pen ink is secondary source because it is well after the date of the event in question. One of the more amusing records of wrong information is the census entry for my great-grandmother, Ida Valerio. Her maiden name was Fenoglio Gaddo. That is an Italian (Piemontese) double surname. Not recorded with a hyphen but just two separate words. In the 1920 census of Reed Township, Will County, Illinois, her name is given as "Fenoglio Valerio", as if "Fenoglio" was her first name. Even more amusing is that Ancestry's index system translates her name as "Rhennie Valerio". Possibly the census enumerator asked her what her name was. One of the children translated the question into Italian and she presumed they wanted her maiden name.

I wish there was more emphasis in genealogical research on surnames, locations (such as counties) and chronology rather than on forcing people to create relationships. So many genealogy computer programs are based on the Family Group Sheet. I use those (of course) but I also create reports of ALL persons with the same surname (related or not) within a certain location (such as a county) and arrange the information in question (such as vital records) in chronological order. THEN I see if I can link anybody up family wise using appropriate records. I don't try to link them up first and do the other research after. I think this is a much more effective method of research and would like to see genealogy computer programs with reports based on this method rather than those whose foundation is the Family Group Sheet. Because sometimes some of those seemingly unrelated individuals turn out to to be related after all -- even if only in a roundabout way -- such as sharing a common distant ancestor decades before.

You're quite correct Barry. Primary information is given by a participant to the event. A Bible entry made years afterwards, if NOT made by someone who was a participant, is secondary information.

But here's an example that genealogists should keep in mind - my great uncle lived to be 104. If he made an entry in a family bible as to the births, marriages or deaths of his younger or older siblings AND if he was a witness/participant at the event, that is primary information even if created dozens of years after the event.

However we still don't know if the information is correct because his memory may be faulty.

Lots of things to think about in genealogy before accepting a "fact" as correct!

Census data on birth years and birth state are certainly not always correct. My great-great grandfather was listed as five years older than my gg gm on the 1850 census, shortly after their marriage, but gained on her each census thereafter. Their gravestone gives his birth year as eight to ten years earlier than the real date, while hers is within a year or two of correct. A photo from their early days suggests that the 1850 age difference was correct or nearly correct. Census entries for their three sons, all living near the parents, have three different combinations of birth states for their father and mother.

John, Census records are a perfect example of asking yourself WHO gave the information? Was it the individual? Was it a spouse? A child? A neighbor?

You cannot blindly trust data that was not provided by the individual and even then it might be wrong for the reasons given in my article.

Sometimes people just lied and or left thing out of the information that they where asked I have a Great Great Aunt who was married in 1891 and then again in 1898 stating she was a spinster at both weddings all other details where correct and matched. And even upon the marriage of my own Great Grandmother in 1909 she stated she had no children my Grandfather was born in 1907 so even primary sources can be misleading if the information giver wanted to cover something up. Never discard snippets information if they don't quite fit the puzzle you just never know when they will come in handy for myself that was a whole family that I keeped tripping over so I decided I would build them a separate tree I collected the information I came across for this family now just imagine my happy dance when a spinet in a death notice in a newspaper linked both tree with brothers so don't discard information if it's not quite right you never know when it will come in handy

I can give another reason why information may be put in documents wrong. When my sister died several years ago. Her husband ask me where she was born. Now, I knew where, but in my grief and with my audio dyslexia, I mistakenly gave him where my daughter was born instead. You see, ever since my daughter was born, I had often mixed their names up even when talking with them. In our family it's a source of humor, but not so much when in documents like is needed here. Just another reason to search for more than one source. Now on all my family work, I add this misinformation along with how it happened.
I've learned to make timelines for each direct individual. In doing so, I've found one great great great grandfather who supposedly fathered a child 5 years before he was born. It's also why it pays to add those other family members besides the direct line, especially when there are repetitions of names through the generations.

I know this to be true...and age isn't the only thing that might be changed! My great-great-grandmother married a man who's last name was Bowes but she thought it sounded too much like bowels, so on the record of her marriage to him, in records at the cemetery where he was buried, in the record of her marriage to her second husband after the death of her first and in numerous school related documents for her daughter, she wrote Bowers. Was that really his name? We also have several letters signed by her first husband's parents with their correct name. Who really knows what lurks in the mind of an ancestor?

4. The clerk recording the information may not hear the response correctly and may enter it incorrectly.

There's a perfect example of that in my own family.

For a long time, I had trouble finding the birth certificate of my great-great-grandmother Bridget. I knew from other sources roughly when and where she was born, and her parents' names, but there was simply no birth registration for a girl called Bridget born to those parents in that time and place.

Instead, there was a boy called Richard, born in the year I was expecting Bridget to be born, registered by the father about three weeks after he was born, but who disappears entirely from any official records after that. What's more, the registrar entering Richard's birth entry was the very same doctor who delivered the baby, so it surely was a boy - wasn't it? Surely the doctor wouldn't make a mistake?

Finally it dawned on me. Bridget. Richard. They sound alike. And the birth took place on the goldfields in the 1850s, under what were almost certainly fairly rough conditions, very likely in a tent.

It's easy to reconstruct what happened. The doctor delivers the baby, stays around long enough to ensure the mother is OK, then hurries off to his next patient. He doesn't carry the birth register around with him, because it's a big heavy book. A few weeks later, the father calls on him to register the baby's birth. The doctor has seen so many patients during the last few weeks, and delivered so many babies, that he has entirely forgotten whether this baby was a boy or a girl. "So what have you decided to call the little one, then?" asks the doctor. "Bridget," replies the proud father. The doctor hears "Richard", and of course Richard is a boy's name, so he writes down "Male". The parents are not given any copy of the birth record, so they have no idea it has been entered wrongly.

And thus my great-great-grandmother Bridget is recorded for all time as a boy called Richard.

Karen I LOVE your story! It does make perfect sense and good for you for thinking outside the box.

My great grandmother's death certificate lists her death date incorrect. That's the one piece of information you would think would be correct on a death certificate. It lists the date of death as March 1, but the doctor signed it on May 2nd and she was buried on May 3rd. The state index has her death date as May 1st.

I first found my grandfather's Christening on the IGI as 28th January 1872. His mother, Louisa, Registered his birth at Shoreditch District on 6th February 1872. She gave his Date of birth - 29th December 1871, and the Clerk wrote 29th February 1872, when that month was only into the 6th day. February is crossed through and replaced by January. This meant William was Christened a day before he was born. On her Marriage Certificate Louisa signed with her Mark, so was unable to read or write, so could not have told the clerk of the error. Later when re-checking the IGI, I found the date of birth - 29th December 1871, was now included, and had been recorded at the time of the Christening. This confirmed for me that the Date of 29th December, when we helped Grandfather celebrate his Birthday many times, was the correct date.

It's amazing all the errors that can (and do) occur. Thanks for sharing Len

My birth certificate was handwritten by my father (I recognize his beautiful handwriting.) He must have been nervous or excited, because he wrote that my parents lived on "Frederal" Street, instead of "Federal" St. That's understandable because he was used to signing documents with his full name; his middle name was Frederick.
However, he had always told me that I was named after 2 of his WW 2 buddies in the Navy. My middle name was supposed to be Douglas. Yet he had written it on the birth form with a double s, Douglass, which I never knew until both of my parents died and I inherited his files.
It puzzled me for years how he could have made that mistake, but I finally figured it out because of a photograph.
My parents were high-school sweethearts. After both graduated from separate universities, they married and my father went off to war. My mother lived with her parents while attending college and during the war. My father probably sent her many letters while at a distant university, during flight school, and later at war.
One day I was looking at a photograph of my grandparents' house, a house I knew intimately. Then the cartoon light bulb lit up over my head. The house was on DOUGLASS Street! My father had written that name hundreds, if not thousands, of times.
So, the namesake for my middle name is not a war hero, but a cobblestone street with brick sidewalks.

Love your story Duane! Thanks for sharing it

I don't feel alone! One of my ancestors was asked for the "mother's" name while reporting his baby's birth and he gave HIS mother's name. I certainly understand how this can happen, but wish I could attach a digital paper clip with a note for others who find this record. Thank you for sharing these other experiences.

When my husband's mother died, his twin brother was asked to give the information on her death certificate. For her mother's name, he gave the given name of his father's mother and the surname of his mother's mother.

When researching my paternal great grand parents, I found that they celebrated their wedding anniversary as May 10th; and it was in both of their obituaries as May 10. I have a copy of their original marriage certificate that I made at the county court house. They were married on January 10. I will always wonder about that. Quite often people push the marriage date back (ie. early children), but forward?

My father's great grandfather's death certificate listed his father as Martin Crampton, per his daughter. Of course those of us that were researching the family history looked and looked for Martin Crampton. We only had Miss England as his mother's name. This past winter we were able to establish his parent's names, Anthony and Susanna, and learn the names of his siblings that we were not aware of. We still have no idea whether his father went by Martin or if he was raised by a man named Martin ... I suspect the latter.

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