Have You Really Proved Your Ancestry?

Using RootsWeb
By Mary Harrell-Sesniak
“Genealogy is not just a pastime; it’s a passion.”

Have You Really Proved Your Ancestry?

Researchers often feel they’ve proved ancestry because they located family in one or more online trees.

But tying into a database doesn’t suffice as proof. For that, you need to verify an author’s sources and references – whether they are from original or derivative documents – and whether they can be treated as primary or secondary sources.

Original vs. Derivative Documents
The first term is easy, as original records must be original and not copies. Examples are birth, marriage and death certificates created by attending physicians or officiates, any hand-written or original typed document / letter and first time photographs, which are not scans or reprints.

Derivatives imply that documents came from (e. g., were derived from) other sources. This applies to, but is not limited to, abstracts, articles, scans, copies, transcriptions, family histories, card files and online databases.

Derivatives can establish viable evidence of ancestry, but only

if citations are accessible for examination

if they are not too many steps removed from the original — such as a fact referring to a reference which was not verified (e. g., a copy of a copy of a copy)

Rule of thumb:
Any document, database or citation which is one or more steps removed from the original, must be evaluated as to whether the intermediary author examined the original or a reliable reference referring to the original.

This doesn’t mean we should discount all online data. Just treat it as possible leads (not proof), and find source documents for verification. After all, most of us would not be able to pursue so much of our ancestry, without these valuable clues.

Primary vs. Secondary Sources
Primary sources are those created close to the time of an event, assuming the originator had the proper expertise and authority to create it. Some examples are:

birth, marriage and death certificates
artifacts, such as military badges
commemorative plaques
certain ephemera (e. g., playbills, advertisements)

Secondary sources are all those created after an event, including:

delayed birth registrations
abstracts, summaries, etc.

Some documents have both primary and secondary elements, depending upon the information. For example, a passenger manifest is a primary document in regards to the details of the voyage, but a secondary source for birth dates, addresses, etc. The same issue relates to birth dates on tombstones, which are always secondary. And depending upon when the monument was erected (or replaced), a death date can be secondary.

Diaries, whereby events were recorded on a day by day basis, are considered primary, but an author’s memory of the past is secondary.

And a dilemma exists in regard to Bible records, whereby the author and date of the entry is uncertain. As a result, many lineage societies note whether a title page with publication date is available, and whether the handwriting and ink changes from item to item.

One might think that original documents are always primary sources – and that derivatives are always secondary. But in reality, it is possible for either type to be primary or secondary. For example,

A hand-written letter discussing family births is an original document, but the source is secondary, since it occurred after the original events.

A film created of an original document (such as those made by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) is a derivative treated as a primary source, since the copy is a reliable representation of the original.

Preponderance of the Evidence vs. the Genealogical Proof Standard
The final step in proving ancestry lies in the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS).

Until recently, researchers cited evidence based upon the legal principle of preponderance of the evidence – meaning that if definitive proof documents could not be located, and if all evidence pointed in the right direction, then a lineage or relationship was accepted as true.

But there are numerous examples of why this might not be true. In my own ancestry, there were three William Harrells, recorded on early census records in Wythe Co., Virginia. A logical assumption might be that they were kin, given that they shared names and lived in the same vicinity. But DNA studies imply that they share a more distant relationship, despite the preponderance of the evidence.

Although certification is not a requirement for proving ancestry, you may wish to review the five elements of the GPS, established by the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG). They recommend that a strong genealogical proof should include:

a reasonably exhaustive search;
complete and accurate source citations;
analysis and correlation of the collected information;
resolution of any conflicting evidence; and
a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.

As you search through records on RootsWeb, and other sites, keep in mind that you can’t be sure of the information until you have seen the evidence. Happy sleuthing!

Previously published in RootsWeb Review: 8 September 2010, Vol. 13, No. 9 Reprinted with permission

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