About Sources

Sources are the bulwark of any research, genealogical or otherwise. The first section below will cover sources on this site, the remaining section covers sources in general, with an emphasis on how they relate to genealogy.

Sources On This Site

This site will list both primary and secondary sources (see definitions below) for each of the individual entries, and the specific bits of information to which they apply.

IMPORTANT: Remember that any single source may not provide all of the information. For example, birth data in U.S. census records usually state only the year (maybe a month) and state or country of birth. Other information must come from elsewhere.

Sources may also come from unexpected places. For example, a U.S. census record usually includes the location of birth for an individual's parent. Thus, a source for a person's place of birth may come from a census record that was made well after they had died. (This is an example of what is really a secondary record, contained within a primary record.)

This site lists all applicable source records for information that is actually shown. Some events and some private information are not shown, and any sources that apply only to this information are not shown either.

Redundant records are shown, and as explained below, quite important in validating particular bits of information. However, no particular effort was made to ensure that the sources are entirely independent. They are recorded as they are.

Primary Records

Primary records are those that are created at the time of an event, by someone who is familiar with the event. These are generally the most reliable.

However, one must keep an open mind that the information may be mis-interpretted by the genealogist. There may be two John Smiths living in a town, or the Springfield mentioned in a text may not be the one in Illinois. Perhaps that smudged word is not really what it looks like.

There is also the possibility that the person recording the information altered some facts for their own reasons, and those reasons may now be long forgotten. They may also have made a mistake in recording the data. For example, most people are familiar with writing the wrong year on something during the first week in January.

Primary records include things like birth and death certificates, census records, marriage records, family bibles or histories (if they are recorded at the time of the events), military records of service, immigration and naturalization records, etc. These are usually the most reliable as they are made at the time of the event, before memory has faded and distinct facts have become cloudy.

Secondary Records

Secondary records include any record of an event that isn't made at the time of the event, often by persons not personally familiar with the event. While useful, these aren't considered as reliable as primary records, due to the normal deterioration of memory.

There is an indistinct line between primary and secondary records, since there is no hard and fast rule about how much time must elapse to consider a record as secondary. For example, a notation on a (non-digital) photograph may be made as soon as the image has been developed, but how much time passed between when the picture was taken and that development?

Examples of secondary records include most histories and biographies. Compilations and indices are also secondary records.

Note that the reliability of a computer-generated index from data stored in a computer database is generally higher than a manual (non-computer) index. However, they are not perfect, and unexpected errors can come in the form of program bugs or hardware malfunctions.

Tertiary Records

While there is no generally recognized “tertiary record” type, I wanted to add it here to describe the set of secondary (and possibly even primary) records that are largely unreliable. These are records that have a very high degree of uncertainty and prove nothing.

Examples of this type of record include many (though not all) on-line genealogies. (Possibly including this one, though I endeaver to be as reliable as might be expected of any secondary record.)

However, while not useful for proof, these records may provide ideas and other avenues to explore. For example, an on-line genealogy may provide you with a birth location you didn't know. From this, you could interrogate other resources (such as a history of that location) and find a reference to the individual.

Cross-Checks and Redundancy

Because any record, even primary records, are subject to human error or sabotage, the idea of cross-checks and redundant sources become important.

Although one source may provide a given level of certainty about a fact, two or more independent sources that agree will provide a much higher level of certainty.

However, the key word in that paragraph is independent. If one source (such as a biography) used another source (such as a marriage certificate) for the date of a marriage, then the two sources are not independent. The information from the biography was derived from the certificate, and provides no cross-reference.

However, if the event is recorded in the biography from interviews with someone who knew the person, as well as a marriage certificate you found in county archives, then the sources are independent. (That is, assuming the interview wasn't with someone who was looking at the certificate.) This provides you with independent confirmation of the marriage date.

Unfortunately, you may not always know if two sources are related. You may not know where the biographer got their information. It is because of this uncertainty that I have taken the easy road — sources identified on this site do not, as a general rule, attempt to identify any relationships between sources.