We’ve all seen it happen. In an effort to quickly build out a tree or rush through the process, folks get clumsy. Someone doesn’t corroborate evidence or confirm the validity of a record. And then weeks, months or even years later, they realize that this ancestral path they have built and that others have copied and pasted into their own trees… has been entirely wrong.
Or, our great grandparents purposely mislead in an effort to convince people that, for example, they WERE actually married when they got pregnant with Uncle Michael. **clutches pearls**
This happened more often than you might think.
That’s why it’s important to confirm and validate the information you have accumulated during your family history work.
Not to fear! We have an in-depth guide below to help you suss out the factual from the suspect.
Let’s get started!
- Conduct a Preliminary Evaluation: Whenever you are presented with a new source, the first step should be to conduct a preliminary evaluation of its reliability.
- Source Reliability: How reliable is this source? Is this a digital copy of a direct record like a birth certificate or is this simply information in someone else’s Ancestry.com tree? As you might imagine, these two sources have widely varying levels of accuracy. Before assuming you’ve broken down that brick wall, take a look at where this information is coming from.
- Relevance: Can you be sure this is *actually* the right person? You’d be surprised how often individuals with the same name and same birth year can be found in a specific geographic location. You will want to cross-reference information like parents names to ensure the relevance of the record.
- Record Type: Is this an original record or a secondary record? Secondary sources aren’t necessarily wrong and they can be incredibly rich with useful information. But they are not as reliable as original sources and may need to be corroborated. What do we mean by original vs secondary sources?
- Original records are those that are created by people who actually saw or witnessed the event and recorded it immediately after it took place. For example, military records or a birth certificate.
- Secondary sources are a step removed from the actual event. It could be that the event was recorded by someone who was not an eye witness or that they recalled the event after significant time went by. Some examples of secondary sources might be obituaries, family histories or published genealogies.
- Confirm Consistency of Facts: Are one’s birthdates consistent from record to record? Or the names of his/her parents? When details noted in a record conflict, you should confirm which pieces are accurate (or inaccurate), so that your research fits into a clear pattern. If you need to corroborate a piece of information, try looking at complementary sources. For example, funeral home, church or cemetery records could be useful corroborating sources in the event that a death certificate presents conflicting information.
- Evaluate Likelihood of Events: You should also work to evaluate whether the events recorded could have really happened. For example, did someone in your tree get married at age 10? Or have the same exact birthdate as his father with the same name… in the same year? Just because something is recorded in a particular way doesn’t mean there weren’t errors or a bit of fabrication going on.
Professional genealogists use the five elements of the Genealogical Proof Standard indicating that:
- A reasonably exhaustive search has been conducted.
- Each statement of fact has a complete and accurate source citation.
- The evidence is reliable and has been skillfully correlated and interpreted.
- Any contradictory evidence has been resolved.
- The conclusion has been soundly reasoned.
Most of us are simply researching our family trees for fun and to learn a bit more about our past. But this doesn’t mean the validity of our work isn’t any less important. Armed with the wrong information, we unknowingly perpetuate inaccuracies, family folklore and myths. But many of these errors can be safely avoided by cross-referencing, double checking and verifying!