Five things you have to know about every record

Records are the foundation of our research. That much is indisputable. One of the most valuable lessons learned in genealogy, however, is that finding a record is only the first step of research. So much more research occurs after we locate any single record. We must thoroughly and completely analyze and evaluate that record, to identify the information it holds, assess the quality of the information, and apply this information to our research question.

For every record we find, there are five things that we must investigate:

1. Why was the record created?

By this I mean the whole record set out of which your record of interest was extracted. (Not, for example, that a death certificate was created because the person died.)

If you are looking at a government record, what law or set of laws required its creation? The law could potentially reveal qualifications that provide indirect evidence about the subject of the record. Here are a few examples:

  • Your ancestor appears on a tax list. The tax law at that time required a poll tax of all males over the age of 21 years. This provides indirect evidence that your ancestor was 21 years of age.
  • Your immigrant ancestor purchased federal land under the Homestead Act. The law stated that only citizens were eligible. This provides indirect evidence that your ancestor was a naturalized citizen.
  • Your ancestor inherited money from a previously unidentified person. The probate law specifically identifies who qualifies as an heir to intestate estates. This provides indirect evidence of the possible relationship between your ancestor and this other person.
  • Your ancestor applied for a pension for military service. The pension laws defined who was eligible for a pension. This provides indirect evidence that your ancestor met these qualifications (whether they concerned injury, service, or age).

Even non-government records are created for a reason. For church records, have you investigated the specifics of the sacraments of your ancestor’s religion. There are differences, for example, between the baptismal rites of a Roman Catholic and a Primitive Baptist. At what age was First Communion or Confirmation? What qualified someone to be a godfather or sponsor?

2. Who created the record?

Specifically, what agency or official?

Is this an official death certificate created by the Health Department? Is it a register copy of a deed, created by the Clerk of the county court?

Who was the enumerator of that census? I recently researched a family where the wife was the enumerator. Even if you are not that lucky, you can still determine whether the enumerator had a relationship with your ancestor.

Was this a form that was filled out by a clerk or one that was filled out by the informant? (And furthermore, was the informant even literate or did someone else have to fill it out for him anyway? Remember, signing her name does not necessarily mean that she could write anything else.)

Is that tombstone the original, 200 year old marker, or was it placed there 40 years ago by the Daughters of the American Revolution?

What were the political leanings of the newspaper that ran that obituary or news article?

All of these can affect the reliability of the record.

3. Who provided the information?

Some records, such as death certificates, explicitly identify the informant. Others, such as deeds, do not specifically identify the informant, but he can be reasonably assumed. Still other times, the informants will remain a complete mystery.

But how much do you know about the informant? What was his relationship to your subject?

More importantly, what was his knowledge of the information being reported? Was the informant a knowledgable, willing participant? Or did the informant only hear about the event from another? This does not necessarily mean that the information is less reliable. In some cases, a “secondary” informant may have a better memory of the events than someone directly involved.

While I know that none of us want to believe that our ancestors could have lied, we do also have to consider this possibility? Was there an underlying bias on the part of the informant, or any other reason that the informant would have provided inaccurate information? Pension records, for example, cannot always be considered reliable sources for age. When a person’s age was closely tied to their financial interests, that person may tend to exaggerate their age by a year or two. This is what we identify as bias.

4. How did you get the record?

That is, how did the record travel from the desk of its creator to your desk?

Most county government records are either still in the same courthouse where they were created or have been transferred from that courthouse directly to the county or state archives. Many church records are still in the same church where they were originally created. No problems here.

When you find records at the local or state historical society library or a university library, can you identify the donor? How did the donor obtain the record? You will want to back-track the possession of the record, where possible, to the creator. In many cases, the record stayed in the family’s possession, so it is important to investigate the family relationships.

During this analysis, you will of course also note that the deed book in the county courthouse was microfilmed by the Family History Library, and that this microfilm was abstracted by an author into the book that you read, if that was the case.

This analysis of its provenance can not only be useful for identifying the originator of a record, but also for emphasizing weaknesses in your own research. Your goal should always be to obtain a record as close to the desk of its creator as possible.

5. What are the alternatives?

Events in the lives of our ancestors often created more than a single record. You can’t rest your conclusions on the statements in a single record. Instead, compile a list of alternative sources for the same information, either direct or indirect.

For a death certificate, for example, look for a church burial register, the tombstone (and other records at the cemetery), records of the funeral home, probate records (both testate and intestate), a newspaper obituary, the federal census mortality schedule, and any other records that may have been created.

For a marriage certificate, consider the marriage license, the minister’s return, a church marriage record, a newspaper account, and a widow’s pension application file (if applicable). Don’t forget incidental sources of the same information as well. Like the 1900 U. S. federal census, which reported the number of years each couple was married.

You should perform these same assessments on every record you find. Some of them, for common record groups, will not have to be completely repeated for every individual record. Just keep a file with the information for these common record groups,  and review the information when you find a new record. Be sure to note when there are discrepancies or special exceptions to the rules.

All of these should be done even before you examine the information that the record holds. It will provide new context and insight into the information you read.

17 thoughts on “Five things you have to know about every record

  1. What great information and it is good to have the reminders from time to time to follow through with what we find and not just add the record to our file or book. More great clues will often surface with that harder look and more thorough study. Thanks for the reminders and 5 tips!

  2. Great article but now I have to add another to do item on my list in order to learn and integrate that knowledge for my own research and that done for others.

    Thank you for kicking me out of my known zone and onto yet another treasure hunt for information. Much more fun than classroom learning.

  3. “Some records, such as death certificates, explicitly identify the informant.”

    In some places at some times. Not every jurisdiction puts this information on the death certificate.

  4. I love your post. Knowing the history of the area is so important to finding records. In colonial Massachusetts the government was a Puritan theocracy, but the records were not kept the by the church. It’s not easy to find baptism and marriage records in churches in colonial Massachusetts, but if you know that marriages were seen a civil contract, not a religious ceremony in the Puritan church, you will find marriages going back to the early 1600s in town records and town reports.

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  12. This is a great article to refer newbie genealogists to read. You can’t begin to evaluate information and evidence in records without first understanding why the record was created, by whom, and the status of the informant and provenance of information.

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