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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Source Priority
by Rhonda R. McClure

March 13, 2003
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Each week I look through the many e-mail messages for the "Ask Rhonda" column and come across a particular question that seems so important that it deserves extra attention. This week, the question of source priority is just such a question. A reader sent in a question asking what to do when sources contradict each other. He wanted to know if there was a rule for applying more weight to one source than another and wondered how to prioritize his sources.

As I sat there reading his message, the wheels began to turn and I began to ponder this question. The easy answer is that yes there are some sources that are better than others, but then I go to thinking about why that is.

Some sources are more believable than others.

An Eye Toward a Standard of Proof

Too often we do not devote as much time to sources as we should. I think it is a sign of the times. We are all so busy and we can only devote so much time to our all-encompassing hobby that we often limit some of our searches to just those records we have easy access to. Unfortunately this does not always mean we have looked at the best possible sources and it could lead us to false conclusions. Instead, even though it will take us longer we should have an eye toward a standard of proof.

Of course there is something about that word standard that discourages some researchers. Using a standard just means looking at the research you have an applying a standard to the research. Have the best resources been used? If not, how reliable are the resources that have been used? Is there more that could be done in the research of the individual to better solidify the conclusions already drawn?

Good genealogists are always looking for new information. They leave no stone unturned, checking for an ancestor whenever they are working in the records of a location in which that person lived. I've been known to return again and again to a lineage that to many others seems done because I am not happy with the records I have been able to work with. I continue to look for other records to see if they will help verify my conclusions.

I do sometimes think, though, that some of our confusion in this area stems not from whether or not what we are using should be considered a source. We use the word source interchangeably with evidence or proof. Instead each of these, in combination with each other, makes up the whole.

What is a Source?

A source is anything in which we have found a clue or hint to our ancestors. It can be a tombstone, a person letter written to our great-grandmother. It can be a GEDCOM file we downloaded from the Internet. It may be the International Genealogical Index if that is the only place we have found the name, date, or place. Which takes us to step two.

The evidence is the information found in the source. The source could be the birth certificate of my grandmother. The evidence found is his birth date, birth place, name of father, name of mother (perhaps even her maiden name), and age of parents. All of these facts were found on the birth certificate and, as such, are pieces of evidence found in that source.

The proof is the process genealogists go through when they evaluate the evidence found in the source and arrive at a conclusion about the individual or the individual's relationship to another. The birth certificate supplies me with the names of two individuals who are listed as the parents of my grandmother. Based on this evidence I come to the conclusion that those are her parents.

The problem arises when genealogists do not take the time to truly evaluate what the evidence tells them. Many times a conclusion drawn from just a single source will be different from the conclusion drawn from the evidence found in multiple sources. Other times, we make assumptions that are not really based on the evidence at hand. The census is a perfect example of this.

Before 1880, the census did not state relationships. However, we often assume, as we look at a household listed in the 1860, for instance, that the man listed is the father, the woman listed after him in the census is his wife, and all the children listed in the house are the children of this couple. The census did not tell us this though. There is no evidence using just the 1860 census that these individuals are related, other than that they share the same last name and are living in the same household. When combined with other sources though, that identify the individuals as children or relatives of the head of that household, we have a stronger case to back up our conclusion.

Classifying Sources

The records and information found in those records must be classified before we can begin to understand which is most reliable in the case of conflicting information.

First we must ask ourselves if the source in question is an original record or if it is a derivative, such as an abstract. An original record is one that was created at the time of the event, or a short time after but someone who was present at the event in question. You may often hear this referred to as a primary source, but original source is a more accurate term. The derivative is more often referred to as a secondary source, a less accurate term, but in general refers to those sources that are created at a later date by those who were not present. Many of the compiled databases and computerized indexes and abstracts that we find online would fall into the derivative category.

Next, we need to evaluate the information found in the record itself. Here we apply the terms primary and secondary. Primary information is that which is supplied by someone present at the event or who has first hand knowledge of the event. Secondary information is information supplied by those who are not actually at the event. It is possible for an original record to include both primary and secondary information. A classic example of this would be a death record. The original record - the death certificate - contains primary information for the death of the individual listed as the deceased. It may also include secondary information about the birth of this individual or about his or her parents.

The last way in which we must evaluate the source and the evidence found in that source is to look at whether or not the evidence is direct or indirect. Direct evidence is that which states the fact. For instance the death certificate is direct evidence for the death because it lists the actual date of death. If it simply lists the age of the individual at the time of his or her death, rather than the birth date, then it could be said to include indirect evidence about the birth. It gives you an age but does not state the actual birth date, which you must figure that out on your own.

Once you have classified your source you will begin to see how reliable it is and whether it is more reliable than the record with the conflicting information. For instance, if you are trying to determine the birth date of an individual and are confronted with a census record and a birth record, the birth record is more reliable than the census.

In Conclusion

It is only through time and experience that we begin to feel more confident in evaluating the sources we use. The hope is that we will find as many original records with as much primary, direct evidence as possible.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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