Records – Where to start?

Researching records is the step with which many family historians want to start. However, you have done the correct homework by gathering known information about your family, setting a research goal, and researching wikis to help you understand the past of an area or jurisdiction. So, now let’s delve into the records.

Records are anything that preserves information about your ancestors and their lives and are the keys to family history research. They provide clues, life stories, vital information, and other family names.

There is a difference between what are called primary records and secondary records.

Primary records include documented information about where the person or immediate family is present during the event. These are birth certificates, marriage licenses, death records, adoption records, military, land sales, and tax and probate records.

Secondary records, which are unreliable, include census records, websites such as Find-A-Grave, a billion graves, newspaper clippings, family histories without documentation, or any document where the individuals were not present.

The best record type is a paper or PDF of the original records. Headstones can help give clues to birth and death dates but have sometimes been known to be incorrect. Use these clues to help locate other records, dates, and locations. Artifacts and photographs can also give information on family members and dates.

A database entry must have the original document attached to be considered a primary source. Someone had to index the records. The indexer was not present during the event and may have made errors. Use these entries to lead you to original sources.

Why aren’t census records considered a primary source? Often when the enumerators collect information, the head of the household may not have been home. The information collector is at the mercy of the informant’s information. At times, a neighbor or boarder may be the one providing information. This can lead to missed information, incorrect birth dates, occupations, etc. However, census records are an invaluable source for locating other information.

Death records, although considered vital records, can also have faulty information on them. The witness or person reporting the death may not be positive on parent names, locations, and birthdates.

Why is it important to understand the difference between primary and secondary sources? Why should it matter if you are working on my individual tree?

In genealogy, the validity of research is what proves a family line. If incorrect information is pulled from census records, for example, children could be missed or have inaccurate birthdates obtained. More information is needed to lead to a completely different family tree line that is separate from your correct ancestry.

Sometimes, often, it is not possible to find copies of primary records. In that case, finding two or more secondary forms, such as a census record and newspaper announcement with the same information, would suffice.

The general rule is one original vital record or two or more documents when those aren’t available. But the two-or-more practice is suitable even for primary records. Why? Because Anthony Blythe, who was born in 1806 in small-town Massachusetts, may be a cousin to an Anthony Blythe born in the same year and town. The birth certificate would have two separate sets of parents and origins. Another document proving which parents belonged to the first Anthony Blythe would be imperative in establishing who his parents were.

Don’t be surprised that records searching becomes like detective work. It is a fun way to discover your family, their lifestyles, occupations, and additional family members. Next month we will discuss two or three types of records in detail and what information can be gathered from each of them.

Happy Researching!