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A Source Is a Source, Of Course, Of Course...Or Is It?

by Edna Katherine French

Hail wedded love, mysterious law, true source
Of human offspring.

Paradise Lost. Book iv, Line 750

—John Milton (1608-1674)

It is extremely important that we document whatever source we use to obtain our information and that means recording, writing down or photocopying everything that you can about that source. For example, you will want to document the date and place of an interview as well as the full name of the person you just interviewed and the relationship of that person to you or your family. You'll also want to record a list of whatever photographs or letters, etc. that person gives or loans to you and and give him or her a copy of the list.

The more your interest grows in genealogy, the larger your stack of data will become. Pretty soon your memory just won't be able to keep up with it and you'll be scratching your head trying to remember just where you got that photocopy of the Bible record, or the summary of a family tradition scribbled on the back of an envelope. I know because I have lost some priceless information by not recording it promptly when I returned from a trip and not recording the source of it.

In genealogy, there are basically two kinds of sources. Primary sources are those which contain information recorded at or about the time of the event. Secondary sources are usually published and are compiled from primary sources. However, they may also be unpublished family records compiled from other sources or written from memory. Several of the Related Web Pages go into more detail than I can in this article. The thing to remember is that primary sources are more reliable than secondary sources, so the closer you can get to a primary source in your research, the more reliable your data will be. Therefore, try to never rely on secondary sources alone.

When you begin your search for family records, you will be delighted if you come across a family Bible, and you should be. It is an extremely valuable record of births, deaths, and marriages. However, sit down, take a deep breath and try to evaluate the Bible's reliability. What is its publication date? Always include that date and the place of publication, the publisher's name, the printer's name, and the name and address of the current owner in your records. Then look at the dates of the earliest events that are recorded. Was the date of a recorded event earlier than the publication date? If so, you know for sure that the information was recorded by memory and may even have been copied from a different source. I have a Bible like that in my possession. All of the handwriting is the same, all of the ink is the same color, the pen used throughout appears to be the same, and the families are grouped the same. I might add that they are grouped in a perfectly indecipherable manner as far as I am concerned, because after the first generation, which I know about from another source, I can't understand the family groupings.

On the other hand, I have two wonderful Bibles. The first is the one that my grandmother used every day. When my sister and I visited her, she read to us and taught us from that Bible. We wouldn't be the same persons today without her and I honor her for her teachings. This Bible is an example of both a primary and a secondary source. I guess she must have worn out her first Bible because she wrote our family lineage in the back of this Bible, with the first part by memory, i.e., her marriage and children. This part is a secondary source. Then she wrote the remainder as it occurred, which makes the final part a primary source.

The second Bible was inscribed, "Presented to John Machin from his affectionate Aunt Edna on his Birthday Novem 1st, 18??" Underneath that was written, in different handwriting and ink, "Birthday November 1, 1860 John Machin". From this, I gather that John Machin, himself, corrected his birth date, so now I have the exact date. Furthermore, I now know that he had an aunt named Edna, which is the same as my name. I don't know our exact relationship, but I know that I have a relative named Edna who lived sometime around 1860. That's exciting.

Let's talk about family tradition for a bit. Most people think that gathering a family tradition is a simple matter of conducting an interview, going home, and writing up the story. Well, it really isn't--not at all. Family traditions are very tricky things.

Suppose you interview Aunt Suzy and she tells you a family story. Then you happen to mention to Aunt Grace that you heard the same story and she really clams up and won't say anything. Hmmm, your ears perk up and you think that something must be going on. That actually happened to me, but it was two different relatives instead. And now I'm sworn to hold the family secret, so I will and you'll just have to take my word that no two people will tell you the same family tradition the same way because it means something different to each of them. But when you are given a trust, keep it. That way you'll earn more of their confidence for the next time you need to ask a question.

Another family tradition to be wary of is the tradition of being part of a famous person's lineage. For example, in the south many families want to show that they are related to Robert E. Lee. I could give more examples, but you get the picture. My family actually hired a genealogist to prove this connection and some family members point proudly to a chart that lists the connection. However, the genealogy work is not signed by anyone, nor are any sources listed for the relationships shown, so there is no way to verify the work that was done.

Diaries and journals are also terrific sources of genealogical data. You may have to wade through weeks of weather reports, daily visits, condition of the crops, quilting bees, and other mundane tasks in order to find a birth, death, or marriage event, but you will be overjoyed to discover that gem if you persevere. Or you may learn that part of the family moved to another state and so gain a clue to the location of another branch of the family.

There's a snake in the farmer's woodpile here also, as I found out. Go back and re-read the third paragraph. You'll find out that secondary sources can be those unpublished family records written from memory. For years I read and treasured my great-uncle's journal and assumed that everything I learned about his two wives and four sons was the same as gospel truth, because he wrote it himself and he was an exciting writer. Only gradually, as I read it more carefully did I realize that it was all written in past tense. I was reading something that he had written by memory at a later time in his life. It was still exciting, but the discovery that it was a secondary source meant that I had more research to do to verify the event data.

Photographs can be another great source of information, especially if someone in your family took the time to identify the people in the picture. It would help if they also used surnames as well as first names and if they dated the photograph. Of course you do this for all of your special photos so the data will be available to your descendants, right? I do now, but I'm sorry to say that I have a lot of earlier pictures with friends and family members whose names I'll never be able to remember.

Which brings me to the next point, don't wait until all of the older family members are gone to sort out your photos. I guarantee that you will need their help.

A number of people collect old photographs and put them on the web in hopes that someone can identify them and add them to their family trees. I've identified a couple of these sites in our Related Web Pages section below.

Sometimes you may know the person in one of your photos but not the place of residence. In that case examine the photograph carefully. You may be lucky enough to find an imprint of the photographer's name and address, which could give you a clue to your ancestor's former address.

One last thing to remember regarding photographs--old decorative frames may contain a recent photograph with an older one concealed underneath. What a rush of feeling you will experience if you unearth such a treasure. So you can see that photographs can truly be a rich source of family heritage and genealogical information, not just a collection stuck in a shoe box. It really is worth your time and effort to go through them, ask your older relatives about them and try to identify the faces, places, and approximate dates.

There are so many kinds of sources to investigate, everything from letters and unrecorded deeds to tombstones and cemetery records. The point of this article is to help you have fun, lots of fun, and to remind you to keep an open mind about what possible errors there could be in your sources. Use the National Genealogical Society's Guidelines and Standards in your research, and always check one source against another for discrepancies. By relying more on primary sources, your work will become increasingly valid and you will walk with confidence into the past toward your ancestors.

Related Books and Products

Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historians

by Elizabeth Shown Mills
Learn how to document your family tree in such a fashion that even the most accomplished scientist or historian would be unable to refute your work! Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian by Elizabeth Shown Mills is the ultimate source book for genealogical standards of citation and analysis!

Related Web Pages

Thousands of old photographs contributed by visitors. Some are identified by name and some are unidentified photographs in search of an identity. You can search the collection by name.

by Michael John Neill
In this article, Mr. Neill recommends four critical steps to get past a brick wall in your research. Then he describes various sources that you can use and he emphasizes the need to DOCUMENT those sources and integrate them with your other information in order to get closer to the truth about your ancestor.

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