Pt 2 Ancestry Research


Primary Sources

Most ancestry research involves both primary and secondary sources, so you must be aware of the differences between the two types as well as their strengths and weaknesses. Primary vs Secondary—what’s the distinction? It’s really quite simple and involves the writer’s proximity to, and direct involvement in the event. Letters, diaries, court records, parish records, land records and deeds, bounty warrants, enlistment papers, etc. are considered Primary Sources because they are verifiable and present evidence from or about the person(s) you’re researching.

If someone else comes along later and writes an article or book about the person’s life (a biography) or writes about his/her discoveries, analyzing them, and re-organizing them into an account summarizing or clarifying primary sources and/or other secondary sources, we call that writing a secondary source. It is secondary in terms of proximity to the actor, not necessarily secondary in importance. So, my great grandfather’s enlistment papers from the Civil War are a primary source, but my story detailing my discoveries about him from the enlistment papers (age, physical appearance, where he was living, marital status, rank, pay) is a secondary source.

It can get trickier, though, if, for instance, you use a town history written, say, at the time of the Civil War. As a history, one would view it as a secondary source, but because it reveals things about the town and the era and was written contemporaneous to the event (the War), it becomes a primary source.

So, your primary source is verifiable evidence from the past and your secondary source uses this evidence to make sense of it. Knowing the difference can be very helpful when you’re using this evidence to build your family tree and tell the stories of ancestors.

On many genealogical websites, you’ll notice sources mentioned that may verify your ancestor’s age, identity, work, geographical location, and so on, but they’re not all equally reliable.

  1. Since spelling was not ‘normalized’ until late in the 19th century and most people were illiterate, you may find your surname (and even first names) spelled every which way, and census takers added to the confusion by spelling names as they sounded. Never assume, then, that your modernized spelling is the only way to spell an ancestor’s name. And beware of abbreviations: I had trouble locating my great-grandfather in ship’s passenger lists because he wasn’t listed by “Thomas” but by “Thos.” and search vehicles didn’t recognize it.

  2. You may find your ancestor’s birth or other date listed in sources years apart. Which is correct? Why the differences? Sometimes a typo or mangled transcript will change a one to a seven, for example. Or the year is an estimate but the source creator failed to note that. The Biographical and Genealogical Index (BGI) may list 4 or 5 different dates for the same person, basing their details on inaccurate primary sources. If you find disagreements, then, seek out primary sources and others to verify the information. If material is still iffy, indicate it in your records: born 2 or 21 March 1862.

  3. Use your math skills and common sense to determine reliability. For example, I have found countless children attributed to a person who had died before these births. It could be name confusion, or someone wants to claim they’re George Washington’s descendant, for example, or they’re simply copying what another source indicated, without checking. If the father your source identifies for your subject was born AFTER your person’s birth, that’s a mistake that should not be repeated. This is where primary evidence such as birth records from the parish or court system prove invaluable. Common sense tells us that George Washington never had any children, so claimants to a direct line of descent are obviously frauds or confused.

  4. Pay attention, too, of any indication that the secondary source makes false claims or leaves out inconvenient truths or ignores hard facts. In grade school, many of us were told stories about George Washington’s veracity—he cut down a cherry tree and then confessed to his father, etc. That never happened. It was an invention of a clergyman writing a biography of our 1st president with the purpose to make him a ‘model’ for young people. This falls into the Santa Claus, Easter Bunny area of myths created for kids, but it shouldn’t be listed as fact in your family story.

  5. The really egregious examples of false claims are those that are episodes of self-aggrandizement or that damage someone’s reputation deliberately to justify the writer’s own possibly bad behavior. Many (most?) people accept Captain John Smith’s account of his adventures in America as historically accurate fact and he has been given credit for discovery of America, being the romantic hero rescued by Pocahontas, and so on. My own research into the life of Captain Christopher Newport, former pirate made Vice-Admiral then Admiral of the Royal Navy during the voyages to Virginia explicitly proves that he—not John Smith—made many of the ‘discoveries’ Smith took credit for. The Pocahontas story never happened. A second instance involves William Bradford’s account of Plymouth Colony in which he smears the reputation of John Billington and his family, in order to justify Bradford’s own abuse of power to silence an individualist.

So, as you discover primary sources, you should find answers to the following questions about what occurred in the past and why these things happened as well as determining the value of the sources:

  1. What is the document/object?

  2. Who wrote or made it?

  3. When was it written or made?

  4. Where was it written or made?

  5. How was it written or made?

  6. What evidence does this source contribute to my research?

  7. What Is The Meaning of This Primary Source?

  8. Why was this document/object written or made?

  9. Who was the intended audience/user?

  10. What questions does this source raise? What don’t we know about this source?

  11. What other information do we have about this document or object?

  12. What other sources are like this one? Can they answer questions about this one?

  13. What else do we need to know in order to understand the evidence in this source?

  14. What have others said about this or similar sources?

  15. How does this source help me to answer my research question?

  16. How does evidence from this source alter or fit into existing interpretations of the past?

You may not be able to answer all questions, but each answer is a step up. More to come…

© Copyright 2015 Linda L Labin, PhD