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Genealogy: Cite and verify every source

By Barry Ewell

For the Deseret News

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

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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.

Always verify. There is never a time when you should not verify information you have received. You can go to almost any Internet search engine today and within a few minutes find hundreds of questionable "facts." I've seen the same birth recorded as happening in Florida in the 1600s and in Utah in the early 1800s. I've seen records of mothers who supposedly gave birth to children at the age of 5, as well as 22-year-old grandfathers. It's frustrating, to say the least.

Through the years, I have found critical errors in information I downloaded. It often appears that genealogists wanted so desperately to extend the line or make a connection that they jumped to conclusions in their research, which caused other genealogists to research someone else's family lines. Often the answers they were looking for were right before their eyes. The following are a few examples of experiences that other genealogists shared with me about the value of verifying information:

"I verify everything for myself. I once used someone else's info and there was a huge mistake that cost me about a year of work."

"Great-granddad's marriage certificate had wrong occupation details on it, which caused me no end of problems with my searching."

"Family myths are just that, myths, unless you check and double-check. I was led to believe that my father's family was from Suffolk County in England. Everyone swore that this was right. It took me five years and a trip to Utah to find out that they were not right. In fact, the family was from the county of Essex."

"I do not automatically accept a version of ancestry from another person — I check everything out, because people sometimes will create their ancestries to fit their own conceptions. When creating a family history, make it a masterpiece of accuracy. Inaccurate information will lead you away from where you want to go."

"Make no assumptions. The family has always stated that my mother's family was from Germany because of the heavy accent. However, in North Carolina, an Irish or Scottish accent could also have been considered 'heavy,' as could Welsh. Don't discount anything until you've proved it can't be."

"I learned some time ago after receiving a family CD from a genealogy company that the information was incorrect on the family line. I called the company and found that they never asked the person if all their information was documented. Today, the new genealogist seems to rely on information over the Internet."

"Do not assume something is correct. This is a real time waster. I spent a lot of time seeking my great-grandfather who supposedly died in South Africa, when in reality he died at his home in Scotland. I have many examples of wasting time — now I'm almost too skeptical. Nothing should be taken at face value. Humans make errors."

"Don't believe everything you read; adopt a 'show-me' attitude. I'd heard for years that there was a fire in the Martin County (N.C.) Courthouse and all records were destroyed. I visited the courthouse and was informed that wasn't the case. Yes, there had been a small fire that damaged a few land records, but that was it."

Searching online presents many of the most challenging issues when it comes to verifying sources. The following are a few of the lessons I have learned from searching online:

Search for the source: It would be nice if all Web resources included a source. Whenever you find a record on the Web that relates you to your family, look for a source of the data. This can be in the form of source citations and references (often denoted as footnotes at the bottom of the page or at the end of the publication), notes or comments, or an "about this database" section for websites like Ancestry.com. You could also send an email to the author or contributor and politely ask for source citations.

Seek to find the referenced source: If the website or database you are using does not have digital images of the actual source, you can search to find the source references. For example, if the source of the information is a genealogy or history book, look for a library in the area you are searching that has a copy and is willing to provide photocopies. Expect a small fee. If the source is a microfilm record, you will most likely be able to secure the original from your local family history center, where the film can be borrowed and viewed.

View the original material online: There is a growing trend of many online databases to provide access to scanned images of original documents. The vast majority of Internet resources have been copied, abstracted, transcribed or summarized from previously existing, original sources. Understanding the difference between these different types of sources will help you best assess how to verify the information that you find.

Use primary sources when possible: Primary sources were created at or close to the time of the event by someone with personal knowledge of the event (for example, a birth date provided by the family doctor for the birth certificate). Primary evidence usually carries more weight than secondary evidence.

Know the power of originals: If the record you are seeing is a photocopy, digital copy, or microfilm copy of the original source, then it is likely to be a valid representation.

Know that limitations of compiled records: Compiled records, which include abstracts, transcriptions, indexes and published family histories, are more likely to have missing information or transcription errors. If you find these records, it's in your best interest to track down the original sources.

Think about the possible source: When you find information that doesn't provide you a source for the database or website, ask yourself what kind of record could have supplied the information. For example, if it's an exact date of birth, then the source is most likely a birth certificate or tombstone inscription. If it is an approximate year of birth, then it may have come from a census record or marriage record.

Use the "sanity checks" built into the better genealogy programs! The exact name of this feature may vary from one program to another, but all the better genealogy programs have the capability to find suspicious data within a database. These built-in quality checks help you quickly identify questionable data, such as very young girls or elderly women giving birth. When your software identifies such data, examine the evidence closely.

Whether the source provides good, limited or no information — write it down. Citing sources gives credibility to your research, helps others understand where you have been, and aids during your analysis.

Editor's note: The original version of this story posted on June 15, 2013, failed to properly attribute all source materials, which violates our editorial policies. The story was revised on March 17, 2014, and attribution to original sources were added.

Barry J. Ewell is author of "Family Treasures: 15 Lessons, Tips and Tricks for Discovering your Family History." Find him on facebook.com/barry.ewell or at MyGenShare.com, an online educational website for genealogy and family history.

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