Genealogy: Cite and verify every source

By Barry Ewell

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Aug. 3 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT



I was given copies of some genealogy information for Christmas in 1990, but I didn't pay too much attention to it for 14 years.

As I reviewed the materials in 2004, I found one genealogy line had ended in the late 1700s in North Carolina. I began the process of becoming familiar with the line and finally decided that I would like to see if I could extend it. Within a few weeks of research, I cracked the puzzle and was able to start moving the line out. Over a period of two years, I extended it several generations. I had carefully documented my research and was quite proud of what I had done.

On one of my genealogy field trips, I made arrangements to visit a distant cousin and collaborate my findings about this line with hers. Within two minutes of looking at my research, she told me that the person from whom I began my research was not the right person. With further discussion, she explained that the person I had listed was in fact in England at the time I had her marrying her husband in North Carolina. She didn't arrive in America for another 10 years.

Where had I gone wrong? I should have taken time to confirm the information that I had been given in 1990. I just assumed it was correct. There was no documentation. That assumption was a costly but valuable error on my part. I learned the value of analysis and hoped I would not make that mistake again.

What exactly is analysis? It's the dividing of information into its six parts: who, what, when, where, why and how. Each of the six parts can be applied to every document or source that you acquire.

To quote Sir Conan Doyle writing as Sherlock Holmes in "The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet," "When you eliminate the impossible, whatever you have left, no matter how improbable, must be the truth." Let's look at what each of the six parts means to genealogists.

Who: You can define the who before you start your search by asking, "Who created the source?"

What: What do you want to know? What information does the source provide?

Where: "Where" is probably the most important fact after "who." Are the records in national, state, county, parish, town or precinct records? Where did you find the records?

When: Determine a time frame or time period so you know where to search for records.

Why: Why was the source created? Why did your ancestor emigrate from Germany to the United States? Why did they move from Illinois to Wyoming? Why are there so many German (or Irish or Italian) people in the area?

How: How does the information agree or conflict with information from other sources? How do I answer all these questions? How do I find the records I need?

As you analyze your data, you will be able to make good decisions about their value and accuracy. It's not necessary to write the answers to the above questions, but writing your conclusions will help to clarify your thinking and reveal any inconsistencies.

Take time to carefully review your research. Look at the sources. What is the artifact? What documents did you use? What books did you use? With whom did you speak?

Look at information gathered from oral or recorded histories. Review previous research.

Correlate unrelated information by categorizing it. Is it primary information (participant, eyewitness) or is it secondary (non-participant)?

Look closely at the evidence. What does the evidence say to you? How relevant is the information to your research? Does it provide direct answers to the questions you are researching? Does it provide indirect answers that help answer the question but do not stand alone? Does it provide negative answers or no answer at all? Is there information missing? What are you seeing that you didn't see before? New insights? Different conclusion? Same answer? Different clues?

Ask for documentation. Never be shy about asking for documentation from another researcher when they have shared information with you. Again, without the paper records in hand, nothing is proven.

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