Saturday, October 16, 2010

Genealogy Lesson 6 - Primary versus Secondary Sources

When researching someone in my family tree, I always want to find their "basic" information.  That includes a birth, marriage and death date.  I also like to get their full name and burial location.  These are my goals for each person...at least my simple goals.
 
In most cases, it is easier to find these bits of information if you work backwards.  You should always trace the life of a person from their burial, back to their birth.  Their death occurred in more recent times and is therefore likely to be better documented.  Let's say you found a specific burial record, that would probably give you the place and date of death.  With that information, you can go looking for the death certificate.
 
Every locality is different but state health departments generally maintain birth, marriage, divorce and death records.  Most counties at least have copies of marriages at the local level.  Take Virginia for example, the state required that records be kept between 1853 and 1896 and then after 1912.  Births are public record after 100 years while marriage, divorce and death records go public after 50 years.  You should call the local county in question and ask about their specific holdings and requirements.
 
Once you get your hands on the death record, that should provide a birth date and location, the names of his/her parents and the locations of their births, plus the name of the person's spouse.  That information would be great...BUT...keep one important fact in mind...the dead person probably did not provide that information.  The data may have been provided by a child, neighbor, friend, spouse or other relation and therefore cannot be considered a primary source.  Only the death information is primary...everything else is secondary.

This "secondary" designation does not devalue the information provided on the death record.  Instead it is a caution flag.  The information is probably true or at least thought to be true by the person who provided it.  There is generally some grain of truth in the information.  Use that data as a road map to better sources, preferably primary sources.

I want to make sure we are clear on the definition of a primary and secondary source.  If grandpa provided his own birth date for his tombstone, that is a secondary source.  This is a little tricky but true.  Grandpa only knows his birth date as best as it was told to him.  His actual birth certificate would be a primary source.  I will tell you two funny stories about birth dates...

My mom and I went on a cruise when I was in middle school.  We were going to the Bahamas so she needed her birth certificate for Customs.  I went with her to vital statistics to get a copy but they were unable to find one.  It took several minutes of searching before they finally found it.  My mom was actually born in 1943, not 1942 as she was always told!  How did she gain a year and never know it?

My dad used to work with a man for many years at the local paper mill.  The man decided to retire and went to Social Security to file the necessary paperwork.  He came back the next day bewildered.  After a few hours at Social Security they had convinced him that his younger brother was older than he was!  His parents had thirteen children and apparently mixed up the birth dates at some point.  The man ended up working two more years before they would let him retire!

Primary sources are documents created as close as you can get to the actual event, where the information is provided by the most logical and relevant source.  Anything else is pretty much a secondary source.  In reality, probably nine out of ten sources are secondary or even greater removed from primary.  Keep this in mind when valuing the weight of one source versus another.

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