Webinar Note: My next webinar is a two-hour lecture + workshop on Deed Records. It will be held on August 20, 1-3:30 pm EST, and is $20. It includes a free PDF guide to Using Deed Records which is a $12 value for every attendee. Click this link to register.
When we first start researching our families, new information about our ancestors just rains down on us. Censuses, death certificates, military records… we are instantly hooked.
Before we take one class, or read one book about how to do genealogy, we are furiously writing down the names and dates we find without question. It’s like manna from heaven.
Then it happens. Wait a minute.
Something is not quite right here.
Birth or death dates don’t match. Names are spelled differently. Our person of interest suddenly disappears from where they lived without a trace. Information conflicts with oral history in the family. Did she really give birth at the age of 14?
This points us to a useful concept for our research:
One source should never be used alone to prove anything.
There are many very good reasons why.
Maybe the record informant didn’t remember the right date.
Maybe the record is for a different person with the same name.
Maybe a transcriber mangled the name when creating a searchable database.
Maybe the person purposefully lied.
Maybe the person wasn’t there when the event happened, and is only
recounting what they were told.
I learned from genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills that documents make assertions.
Assertions are not facts.
It’s our job to prove facts. I have never forgotten that guidance.
In the death certificate for Maria Howard below, Levi Prather and Margaret Simpson were named as her parents by her sister Hattie.
But Maria’s mother was actually Martha.
Maria’s step-mother was Margaret.
In Effie Fendrick’s death certificate below, her daughter Mattie reported that Effie was about 61 years of age at her death.
Thorough research showed that Effie was about 9 years older than that, likely closer to 70 years of age.
In Dee Suggs’ 1920 census household, Mike Fendrix is called a boarder:
But thorough research uncovered that he was also Dee’s brother.
In Ferdinand Holt’s World War II draft registration below, he said he was born 18 February 1895.
That’s about 7 years after he was really born.
One of the goals for this website is building genealogical skills for all genealogists. When we grow our skills as researchers, the end result will be more accurate family trees.
Believing the information found in any one source is an invitation to be led astray.
We have to do thorough (otherwise known as exhaustive) research, and never take isolated assertions at face value.
Take a look through your research.
Where in your tree have you relied only on one source?
I’ve discussed related concepts at Reclaiming Kin many times over the years. Here are just a few worth revisiting:
Prove Identity: Don’t Just Match Names
She Might Be a Widow
When Original Sources Are Wrong
Lie to Me
I would love to hear from you about how relying on source led you astray in your genealogical research.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.