In Search of Your Ancestors?
A column on genealogy by George Farris

January 23, 2008

2. "Source Data"

As I discussed in a previous column, you will not have proceeded very far in assembling your own family information before encountering discrepancies. For example one list of important family dates might show your grandparents' marriage date as June 23 and another list that your cousin has shows it as September 28. Which one is correct? With the caveat that no source is guaranteed to be correct, there are some data sources that are generally accepted as being authoritative. Some such sources are civil records such as those that can be found at the local courthouse. In the past, particularly in Europe, the most authoritative records for births, marriages, and deaths were maintained by religious institutions. If your grandparents were married in the United States some time during the last 100 years there is a very good possibility that there is an authoritative record of the marriage in the court house of the county in which they were married - or, in some states, in a state records repository. These, and many other records, are "public records" available to you on request. So you can probably resolve that particular discrepancy fairly easily. But there will be more discrepancies as well as many blank dates, places, and names as you work further back into your family history. So, where are some sources of reliable information?

There are numerous complete books devoted to this topic, so any short list is just a starting point. Below I'll mention some of the sources that are most likely to be the most rewarding in starting on your family research. But, I have to start off with a brief warning regarding using the Internet as a source of data. I've seen far too many citations of data source for genealogy data as "found on the Internet". Unfortunately, too many people beginning family research start with the Internet without understanding some important distinction regarding reliability of information.

There are three fundamentally different types of genealogy information available on-line: The most common is a compilation of information on a specific family posted by someone else. This is NOT source data. It may or may not be accurate or reliable - and should only be used after independent verification. Be especially wary if no source is cited for the data. If a source document is cited, try to find that original document yourself and verify that the information was correctly interpreted. The second type of information available on-line consists of original source document images - such as census and other documents usually available only by subscription through such services as Original document images allow you to make your own interpretation of what they say - and are as good a source as you will find. (Which still doesn't guarantee that the information is correct.) The third type of data available on-line consist of extractions - that is, copy produced by someone else reading a source document and typing exactly what they think they see. These may or may not be reliable - it depends on the person doing the extraction. I will provide examples of problems that I've encountered with all of these types of information in future columns.

If your immediate ancestors lived right here in Anderson County, Tennessee then you are in luck. Not only are the county records in good shape, well organized, and accessible, the county even has an official County Historian who will guide you in searching the archival records. (She won't do your research for you, however.) Some of the records available that you may need to research include: Marriage Bonds, Divorce Records, Indexes and Warranty Deeds, Probate Records, Wills, Estates, Court Records, and Tax Records.

However, in most counties it will not be that easy. Usually you will need to go to the appropriate county office ( or in some northeastern states to town offices) for the type of records you are looking for and ask to look for them in the records vaults. Procedures for access to records vary widely between counties and states - so it may take some persistence. In most places, county employees do not have the time (or interest) to provide much help - other than to point you to the index for the appropriate records and to where the record books or files are kept. Other counties go to the other extreme of insisting that you are not permitted to go into the record vaults yourself and must tell them exactly what records you need and they will bring them to you. Since, normally, searching one record ends up pointing you to several others that you need to research, this tends to be an inefficient and frustrating process. Since it's also inefficient for the county employees, such counties often take a different approach to making the public records available - by having microfilm copies of the records available on microfilm at a local library.

Which brings up another important source. Local libraries in county seat towns usually have a genealogy and local history section. In addition to microfilm of county records, these can contain a treasure trove of other information about the county and the people who have lived there throughout its history. Sometimes there will be old newspaper files on microfilm, old church records for churches that no longer exist, collections of family research papers, and a variety of books related to genealogy.

Since most of our ancestors did not stay in one place for all of their lives, you will probably end up looking for records in many different localities. My own research has taken me to literally hundreds of court houses and local libraries in at least 25 states, several state libraries and archives, scores of cemeteries - plus spending many hours searching microfilm records from places that I wasn't able to visit including areas in England, Scotland, Ireland, and Germany.

So how do you view records from places that you can't personally visit? There are ways that anyone can do that. The most comprehensive source is through microfilm at the nearest LDS Family History Center. I'll address that particular source in a future column.

The National Archives contain a vast amount of information - but the most important records for genealogy research are the military records, including pension and bounty land claim files for veterans of every major war - which you can obtain through National Archives and Records Administration. In researching my own family I've found important information in these records for ancestors who served in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War, and the Civil War. This is another source to be addressed in more detail later.

Wherever you find records relevant to your own family research, be sure to make a note of the source. Later, after you've gathered many fragments of family information, it's easy to forget where you found a particular item. And you may find conflicting information later somewhere else and will want to go back and look into the context of each of the records in order to determine which is most likely to be correct.

One other important point, spelling of names in records can vary considerably - so you always have to be on the lookout for variants of the names you are researching. Various branches of a family sometimes used different versions of the spelling. And the person recording information usually was not the person named in the records. Often the names were simply spelled phonetically - with quite a range of variations. I have an example in which the name of one of the parties, a "Farris", was spelled four different ways within one short document - a one page deed.

Previous Columns in this series

1. Beginning your search

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