Research Sources

    When it comes to sources for genealogical research, I try, in my limited yet ever-expanding knowledge of the subject, to be as thorough and conscientious as possible. I am very wary of undocumented listings and its offspring. Often, I've been accused of being too strongly opinionated on the subject, but I am involved in this research not to try and pin together a pretty family tree to hang on my wall, but because the lives I discover and the research itself fascinate me.

          Below, I've listed some notes and thoughts on various types of sources, based on personal experience, and the place I give them in my own work. It is by no means a complete list, and references such as those shown, which I refer to when I have questions about the proper way to handle sources, should be consulted.

    For research standards and guidelines, I refer to "The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual" (Washington, D.C.: Board for Certification of Genealogists, 2000 [Millennium Edition]).
    For general layout of data in my own research, I use Thomas Kozachek's "Guidelines for authors of Compiled Genealogies" (Boston: Newbury Street Press, 1998). Available from the New England Historic Genealogical Society [NEHGS].
    For theory, lessons, and overall standard practices, I consult "Professional Genealogy: A Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers, and Librarians" (GPC, 2001), Elizabeth Shown Mills, ed.
    For proper citations, as well as in-depth notes on the various types and classes of sources (primary, secondary, etc.), my reference is Elizabeth Shown Mills' "Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian" (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing company, 1997). I must admit, however, that I began my research before consulting the publication of this reference and, with several hundred sources in my database, some used only a few times or even once, I have not yet edited some of the older listings. Also, this reference does not truly address the current state of research using modern technology (i.e. the internet and CD-ROM databases), though perhaps a future edition will do so. Most genealogy software does not lend itself to the correct entry or display of source citations, making it even more difficult to organize.
    Most of these references can be obtained from Barnes & Noble. For direct links to their listings for any of these items, click the title below.
    BCG Genealogical Standards Manual
    Evidence!: Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian
    Professional Genealogy: A Manual for Researchers...
    "Guidelines for authors..." is available from the NEHGS.

  Cemeteries & Headstones
    Cemetery listings and headstones can provide many clues to our ancestors, as well as being perhaps the only physical connection to their existence. They can provide clues to the names of spouses, and even their parents. Are many surnames extant in one plot? What's the connection? Was there a rash of infant or other deaths in a certain time frame? What event caused this? Plague, fire, war?
    We must realize, however, that these listings can also be misleading. Nicknames are often used on stones, or maiden surname initials as middle initials. Faded carving can be difficult to make out, and it's easy for a transcriber to misread it. There could be two headstones for the same person, or a stone made for a person who moved away and is not actually buried there. Someone may have died elsewhere and been transported back for burial, or multiple spouses may have been buried in separate towns or even states (just because your great grandparent married someone, it doesn't mean that person is actually in your line). Birth dates are quite often given by someone who had no firsthand knowledge of the event, and even death dates can be off. As long as we remember such things while analyzing and cross-checking the data gleaned from such a source, we can still gain knowledge and information from them.

  Compiled Genealogies & Histories
    These include things such as published family histories, family association newsletters, and even geography-based compilations (such as Alvan Talcott's "Families of Early Guilford, Connecticut"). These can be precarious. Ideally, they are well-documented listings that lead the reader to primary sources. A great case in point is the "Great Migration" series documenting early settlers to New England, a well-respected and researched group of books and newsletters.
      On the other end of the spectrum are those books that are nothing more than undocumented expansions of someone's wishful thinking, or weak analysis of other secondary sources. A case in point is "A History of the Adams and Evarts Families" by J.M. Adams (Chatham N.Y.: The Courier Printing House, 1894). It sprinkles a few sources throughout to try and justify itself, while the majority of listings contain strings of people put together by what often seems to be the "close your eyes and point" method. Many families are duplicated between siblings, and others are not only unlikely, but often impossible (i.e., children born after the deaths of their parents, marriages in very early childhood, and the like). To be fair, the author of such a work at an early date may have had access to some records or personal knowledge that we don't have today. And they didn't have the luxury of easy access to transcripts or actual viewing of many town or church records which we now have. Unless there are sources listed, a way to verify the data, it once again spreads misinformation and confusion.
    Between lie a multitude of variations, and it is up to the reader to analyze this data, comparing it to other sources. Basically, in all research, whether genealogical or otherwise, we have to do the work ourselves, and can't merely regurgitate what we've been told.
    When I first began my research, I was happy and lucky to stumble across the afore-mentioned "Families of Early Guilford." It has led me to a great many branches and people I would not have otherwise found. It is a generally-respected and fairly accurate report of the early settlers of this town. It does have errors and omissions, however, which is to be expected. The problems stemming from relying on this source, however, have been two-fold. First, I now have in my records many, many people on side and connecting lines for which I have only Talcott's word, and it is highly unlikely I will get back to them anytime soon unless they pop up in some other connected way. Thus, when others see my research database, they either take it as fact, or ask me for more information where I have none. The second problem is related to my software. As convenient as these things can be, genealogy software is based on the "tree" conundrum. It was created to help people make out a pretty little history of their families to hand out or pin on the wall, and not as a tool to facilitate documentation, sorting, or analysis. Yes, sources can be added, but this seems to be almost a secondary addition, and does not lend itself to easy (or even difficult) comparison of the data. Should I delete these people for whom I have only this one source? No. They tie in quite a few lines, and give me a sense of migrations and the like. As pointers, it's been invaluable. But, without a way to look at the lines as linked without this source, to see what's lacking, it becomes difficult to manage several thousand people and families.

  Family Bibles
    These are treasures to cherish. They're often full of not only names and people, but other little items of a personal nature, or notes written in the hand of a relative. When referencing the data given, however, we must take many factors into account. These include questions such as who created the listings, and when? Were they all written by the same person, in the same handwriting, at the same time? Was the person who entered the data present or even alive at the time of the events? What is the publication date of the Bible? Was it after the events had occurred? Likely, the names of people involved may be correct, but the dates given may be off, especially if they were all written in one or two sittings, and not at the time of the event. And there's always the case of name changes. Just because everyone called her Aunt Nanny, it doesn't mean her name wasn't really Rosalind or Conchita Maria. Okay, that's just an example, but you get the point.
    So while we can enjoy the personal value and joy of something like a Family Bible or register, we should still treat it with the same cautious eye as every other source.

  Family Trees, Charts, and "WorldTrees"
    These things are relegated to the same status as LDS sources or published family histories (q.v.). We don't know where the data came from , or if it was merely copied from another such tree. Some descendancy and ancestry charts include the sources used, which can be a great thing to have. This at least gives clues to where the information came from so the viewer can go and find those sources themselves. Remember, everyone makes mistake in transcriptions, and perhaps the creator of that tree or chart did, as well. Or perhaps the data was merely copied from another flawed source.

    It's cute, it's fun, it's neat to hang on your wall. But there is no coat-of-arms for your family name. Yes, you may have an ancestor that had an official coat-of-arms, but it is theirs, and does not extend through to the whole surname. Heraldry can be a fascinating study, and it's fun to find or even display the related imagery of an ancestor (noting whose it was, of course). But the shops and web sites which sell these as your family's coat-of-arms are on the same lines as the "World Book Of ___" scams. It suckers people in, is not a scholarly use of such items, and it should in now way be the basis for research.

  The Internet
    The Internet can be an amazing resource when it comes to genealogical research. Access to transcriptions, census and vital records, geographical knowledge - all these can be a wonder to use. I've come across some gems in the forms of photos, histories and census records that I would not otherwise have had access to. The danger lies in the usage, however. We have to be careful, as with all sources, of where the information originated. If it doesn't have sources, it's useless. If it's a transcription of an original source, such as vital records, or a town history, it's great, but human error is to be expected. If it's a direct copy of someone else's research, it's plagiarism, and error is to be expected. Again, it all boils down to how we use the tool, and how much we rely on it over finding original records.
    Rootsweb's WorldConnect project can be fun to toy with, and find connections to living people, even. It can also be a nice source of contacts for further research. But, as with the Family Trees and IGI records lacking source citations, it is not to be trusted. List your sources please, people. Your software will do it for you if you tell it to. If you don't have sources, get some before you spread more possible falsehoods.

  LDS "Data"
    This is one of the opinions that often gets me nasty or exasperated looks, but I will continue to stand fast by it. I refuse to use LDS sources that are anything other than direct copies of original records (i.e. microfilms of parish records, etc.).
    Why? Can't trust 'em. Basically, as I understand it, LDS members submit their family trees in an effort to have their ancestors baptized into their faith and live with them in their heaven. Which is their belief, and that's fine (though I often wonder what those ancestors would have to say about it!). The problem is, in an effort to do this, people have submitted whatever undocumented data they thought, believed or were told was the "truth" about their ancestry (and perhaps threw in some extras just to be safe), without need for any actual proof or scholarly research. There is often widely conflicting or impossible data, no sources, and no standard. And, to make things worse, this information has been propagated throughout time, leeching it way into otherwise well-researched documents and listings. If someone's web site or record references a large number of IGI citations, I immediately steer away. It's not worth the time and effort to sift through the misleading or erroneous information to get to something useful. Yes, it can be a possible starting point or hint, but the time spent tracking down the false leads makes it nigh unto impossible to gain any useful information. Better to spend the time and effort with primary documents such as vital and probate records, or even more solid and well-documented secondary sources. Genealogical societies get caught up in the LDS rap, as well, arranging research trips to Salt Lake City and touting the local "Family History Library." Sure, there may be some great resources there, but these are often available elsewhere. Local municipal or institutional libraries often have some highly impressive collections, and societies throughout the world have programs for aiding in research of their collections, and even circulating lending libraries. Spend your money and time on these, instead, and the rewards will be just as great and far less frustrating.

  Personal Knowledge & "Family Tradition"
    The stories we learn from those who knew our relatives can be priceless. They are often a joy amidst the dry and boring dates and places we wade through. Neat stories to be passed along, and likely to have a grain of truth mixed in. But we must realize that it is merely a grain, as recollections are often fogged or distorted, and, like the child's game of postman, words are altered in the telling.
    Basically, if a person lived an event, then personal knowledge can be fairly trustworthy. We generally know who our parents are, or at least who raised us. We may know our grandparents and other close relatives, where they lived, their religion, occupations, etc. But when it comes to dates, places and actual events, how trustworthy is this? Someone may have said they were in a certain event or unit in a war, but were they really? Or did they make things up to make the story better? Did someone do something illegal or unaccepted and change their identity or history to get away from this? We may never know, but there are always clues.
    I had an uncle who served in Vietnam. I was always told by my mother, his sister, that he was a Green Beret in an Air Cavalry unit. After his death a couple of years back, I did some research on him, and discovered that he was actually in a combat engineer unit which was assigned to an Air Cavalry unit. Perhaps he started a lie to make his stories that much more exciting, or perhaps people misunderstood. It doesn't really matter, and makes for an interesting discussion. But it points out the fact that even those closely related to someone can, often unintentionally, be in error.
    This relates, as well, to statements that begin with, "Family tradition states...." We don't know where this actually comes from, or who in the family began relating this history, especially when the "Family History" involved occurred several generations in the past. Stories like this should not be passed on as fact, or relied upon for our research. When shown, they should be quoted or referenced, with a proper citation for the source.

  Vital Records
    These should be easy, shouldn't they? I find they're not. We have to be careful to note and consider who actually created the record. In lists of things like birth records, who was the transcriber? How easy to read was the original? If you receive a certified copy of a birth or marriage record, did the county clerk who created it in the present time copy the record exactly as it originally appeared? Or did they forget to take into account such things as the Gregorian and Quaker calendars in use until the mid 1700s, and transcribe something like "3rd, 12mo., 1687" into Dec. 3 1687 instead of Feb. 3 1688? (Sorry if I got that date wrong - it can be confusing, and I'm still working on getting the math fixed in my head.) For marriage certificates and licenses, who provided the information, and did they have a history of getting things wrong? One of my grandfathers had a penchant for changing peoples' names, his own as well as others'. Thus, any written record of his is suspect.
    Death certificates are notorious for this misinformation, as they ask for information from people who often have no direct knowledge of people or events. A child can easily be mistaken about the place or date of birth of their parents. And how much more so for grandparents they may have never even met or spent much time with? It's a time of stress for those involved, and errors often occur. This doesn't mean we automatically rule out such things, just that, as with all records, we must be careful to note the actual source of the information and not take it at face value.

  "The World Book of Insert Surname Here" Type Scam
    We've all seen 'em. The companies that offer "Your Family History!!" in a specially printed book (by pre-order only, of course). You know, the type where they print a coat of-arms on the cover and load the pages with a couple of mentions of places a surname has been spotted amidst a panoply of stock filler. These things drive me crazy. My parents sent me one once, not knowing any better, and I thank them for the thought and the encouragement. But for any out there who are considering such a thing - STOP!! It is a scam, and a bane to honest genealogical research.
    Basically, anything that tries to sell itself based solely on heraldic images, connections of your family specifically to famous people or royalty, or a history of a surname is a load of bunk, and a waste of paper.