I’m mapping out what I hope will be a long-running Youtube channel about genealogy, and that’s making me think about the core principles that I try to follow when researching my kids’ ancestors.
I’ve got four:
- It’s not about the information in the document, it’s about the people who filled out the document.
- Don’t rely on the transcription. Always look at the original image and read everything.
- Assume good intent, but know that everyone, including you, makes mistakes.
- Primary sources such as parish records are gold. Secondary and tertiary sources—that is, research conducted by others—are roadmaps to help find primary sources.
Each document is a conversation
For the first… you’ll find a lot of guidance about how to interpret census records, parish records, birth certificates. Each bit of guidance is different, because each document is different and has different potential errors. That’s how I started learning genealogy, but over the years, I’ve realized that’s not overly complicated, it doesn’t help me get started when I encounter a new source.
There’s a simpler way. All of these documents aren’t the point. The point is that a conversation happened between at least two people, and the document reflects that conversation. The issue is the motivations and mindsets of the people having that conversation.
That may sound weird, but consider, as an example, a census record. It may look like an “official” government document, but it’s really not. One person, a census taker, is filling out a document by having a face-to-face conversation with at least one other person who resides at a particular house or apartment.
Consider the census taker first. This was a paying job, and census takers in the U.S. were paid by the head for completely filled out entries. They weren’t paid for getting every single detail correct, whether it was checking spelling on names or getting the right age. But they would go back to a house multiple times until they found someone at home.
Then consider the family member who responded—and you can’t know which one. It could have been a wife who lied about her age because she was embarrassed she was older than her husband. It could have been a teenager who didn’t really know where her parents were born. Perhaps a grandmother from the old country who didn’t speak English well? Or consider a family scandal, where a mother in her fifties reported that her eldest daughter’s baby, born out of wedlock, was the daughter’s sister.
Of course, there’s at least one more party involved, and this brings me to my second principle: read everything on the original document. The third party involved in a census record is a recent transcriber employed by a genealogy company. They’re doing their best, and will have far more experience than you and me deciphering these records generally, but from time to time, they’re going to mess up the obscure spelling of a name in your family.
Additionally, they’re not always paid to transcribe everything, especially when you get to civil registration documents, parish registers, and the like. So I always, always look at the image. And it’s not just about transcription errors: I’ve found previously unknown relatives by reading additional information in immigration records, and discovered fascinating stories in causes of death on death certificates—such as the fellow who died of general paralysis, a euphemism for syphilis; and the woman whose cause of death was “strangulation by son.”
Assume good intent
You’ve made mistakes when researching your family tree, right? I know I have, and I know that I wasn’t just trying to concoct a fun story, I was just trying to get it right. I had good intensions.
Portions of your family tree will already have been researched by others, and they will make mistakes as well. Perhaps there was a family legend connecting them to someone famous, and they only looked for facts that would support the legend. Or they got combined two people of the same name of about the same age who both lived close to each other. They might even have been conducting their researching a century ago, when the few available records could lead to the wrong conclusion.
Those other family historians are just like you and me. They made mistakes, but those mistakes were all well intentioned.
What does that mean? Don’t accept prior research at face value, but don’t throw it away either. Use it as a roadmap to trace their steps and double check their work. It’s not just about discovering mistakes—they may not have noticed some other juicy tidbit when looking at the same records.
Rely only on primary sources
This actually leads right into my fourth principle: the foundation of your work should come from primary source documents.
What are primary source documents? They are created contemporaneously with a given event, for example, a census record, a baptism recorded in a parish register, or an intestate probate proceeding.
Secondary sources are detailed prior research with extensive citations, such as a publish family history book; while tertiary sources are summaries, such DAR lineage books.
Now, this may seem pretty obvious, but quite a few genealogy websites display secondary and tertiary sources in the same fashion as primary source documents. Take the Millenium File on Ancestry.com. It shows up as hints just like census and parish records, and a new user (such as me back in 2011) might assume it’s a totally reliable source. But if you read Ancestry’s card describing the source, it’s pretty clear that it is a tertiary source: a database of research compiled by others with no supporting citations. Ancestry even states that “Database like these are great starting points for beginning your research.”
Don’t make the mistake of dismissing Ancestry’s entire catalog entitled “Stories, Memories and Histories” though. Some of these are primary source documents, such as county histories published around the turn of the 20th century. Those entries are based on first-person interviews, and the interviewee paid for their inclusion.