Archive for the ‘Records & History’ Category

With other projects and priorities now behind me, I can continue this series of meditations on GPS.

Restating Step 1 of the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS), we are to

conduct a reasonably exhaustive search in reliable sources for all information that is or may be pertinent to the identity, relationship, event, or situation in question. 1

It seems worth the effort to take a few lines to discuss something about sources in general. While it may seem obvious, I want to start this essay at the broadest level by asking the question: What are sources? More specifically: What are historical sources? Note that I don’t ask about reliable sources just yet. We need to lay some groundwork, first.

Numerous authors have given us a variety of perspectives on the term, historical sources. However, it seems to me that Howell and Prevenier offer the most acceptable definition for the family historian.

Sources are artifacts that have been left by the past. They exist either as relics, what we might call “remains,” or as the testimonies of witnesses to the past. 2

What makes this definition useful for the family historian is that it is simple, yet comprehensive. Anything from the past that bears the trace of a human fingerprint or footprint upon it, qualifies as an historical source. To a skilled archeologist, the charred remains of a trash pile can reveal as much about daily life in the 18th century as a woman’s diary. Symbols, in contrast to words, carved onto a grave marker can suggest a relationship, an occupation, or a place of origin. As genealogists, too often, we tend to focus upon specific features of specific types of source. This tendency, while illuminating certain aspects of our research, can hinder our efforts to be reasonably exhaustive.

Evaluating for reliability involves both technical analysis and critical analysis of the artifact, with the technical analysis being necessarily performed first. For technical analysis, we can borrow tools long developed and utilized by historians. Among some of the more common tools are: paleography, linguistics, heraldry, epigraphy, and diplomatics. Using such tools, first, we want to locate the artifact in time and place. When and where was it created? In what social setting was it created and by whom was it created? What similarities does it share with other artifacts created during the time and place, by the same creator?

Secondly , we want to make the language of the artifact comprehensible. What linguistic features does the artifact possess? Is the language foreign, technical, specialized, or archaic? If the language is foreign, we will need to translate it (make it comprehensible). If the handwriting is archaic or otherwise difficult to read, we will need to transcribe it. If the language is temporal or technical, we will need to understand the terminology within the social context that it was written.3

Finally, as part of our technical evaluation, we want to check the artifact for its authenticity. 4 While the auction price of a document, containing genealogical interest, may not hang in the balance, we still want to examine the artifact for how genuine and accurate it is. Among the questions we want to ask of each artifact are: What was the motivation for creating that artifact? Was the creator in a position to accurately render the information contained within or on it? What social contexts might have ensured or hindered an accurate recording?

Once we have addressed the more universal broader questions of technical analysis, there are questions that are relevant to the form of artifact. From the foregoing comprehensive definition of historical sources, we can delineate artifacts into three forms: written, oral, and relic. Each form possesses traits that can be evaluated for strengths and weaknesses that affect that artifact’s reliability as a source. Any given artifact may be classified into multiple forms. For example, a grave marker, which contains the name of the deceased, can be classified as a written source. However, when you consider the location of the marker (the cemetery wherein it is located, where the marker is situated in relation to other markers, the design of the marker, symbols upon it,…), it can also be called a relic. A video recording, whether of an interview or of a family gathering, has features of a relic, yet it can also be a form of oral testimony. Each of these forms embodies certain strengths and weaknesses that can be evaluated for reliability.

In my next essay, I will try to parse these forms so that each can be individually explored.


  1. The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual. (Orem, Utah: Ancestry Publishing Co., 2000).
  2. Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier, From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001), 17.
  3. Exploring changes in meaning is one of my favorite digressions from genealogy. Linguists know that language is a “living thing.” It evolves and changes. The meanings of a word or term can morph into forms unrecognizable to early users of that term. To illustrate the morphological nature of words, consider the meaning for “mortuary.” Today it refers to a place where dead bodies are kept before burial. However, in the 14th century, a mortuary was a gift claimed by a parson from the estate of the person who willed that gift upon death. According to one source, the modern meaning did not appear until mid-19th century.
  4. Discussing this issue at length is outside the scope of this particular essay. However, I want to introduce it for discussion at another time. I am a regular reader of peer reviewed journals in genealogy. One thing that is often missing from the text of genealogical research articles is the authentication of the records used.  While, as a journal editor, I understand the issues of space limitations, as a “student” of genealogy—which I will always remain—I know that learning from these articles is significantly disadvantaged. If I am unfamiliar with the particular record types used, I have no direction from the author on where to learn more about them. Moreover, I cannot be certain that the author, himself/herself, has performed any authentication of the sources used.  For example, if the author used a poll tax list in constructing their argument, can they tell the reader what a poll tax is and what makes it useful as a source in support of their argument?

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In her book, Evidence Explained, Elizabeth Shown Mills wrote that the most important reason to assess the reliability of sources is so that one can reach “the most reliable conclusions.”[1] Critical analysis of sources is the basis of good genealogical research. It is extraordinarily rare that one’s pedigree is already well established, documented as” proven” in any substantial way. Therefore, research of historical records is the primary path to discovery of one’s ancestry.

Devising a simple methodology for critically analyzing sources is fraught with problems. It is impossible to fully assess reliability of any given source by examining it in isolation. History and experience teach us that no source is perfectly reliable, if one means by that complete and certain knowledge of facts related to past events. Sources utilized by genealogists—indeed, by historians generally—are inherently fallible allowing only a fragmentary, often biased, view of past events. From these fragments, we identify the most likely factoids among the falsities, the relevant among the irrelevant. Then, we superimpose our interpretation of those privileged records to create a reasoned construction of our genealogy. Therefore, the conclusions from our research are actually theories of origins and family history. For those of us who yearn for certainty in our research, this constructivist view can be disconcerting.

Continuing my meditations on the five-point steps of GPS, I have to address what I believe is a misstep in parsing or separating the search in reliable sources (step 1) from the evaluation of information found in the sources we privilege or collect (step 3). Whether this parsing of source from information found within it is deliberate or a poor choice of phrasing, I do not know. However, it can lead some researchers to eliminating sources that hold particular facts because in general the source is deemed unreliable. You simply cannot identify superficially which sources are reliable and which are not without examining the information found within them first. In a recent article Arlene Eakle expressed this best.

[U]nless you include the careful examination, in your own genealogical work, of printed sources and books, including those found on the Internet, as well as the original manuscript sources from which those printed works come, your ill-informed research will spread inaccuracies and false claims that will continue to confuse and discourage us. [2]

Eakle goes on to explain that every source needs to be examined for its facts and traditions, whether primary or hearsay, and every source factoid found must be documented for its fitness in relation to other facts. The researcher cannot do this if she has superficially excluded sources that were deemed unreliable in an earlier step.

Of course, none of this is says that generalizations cannot be made about various types of source. I will discuss a few generalizations about the strengths and weaknesses of various source types used by family historians in a later essay.


[1] Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace (Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2007).

[2] Arlene H. Eakle, “The Davinci Code and Your Genealogy: Multiple Streams of Evidence,” NGS News Magazine 34 (Jan-Mar 2008).

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Last posting, I began a deeper meditation on the first step of the Genealogical Proof Standards which reads:

conduct a reasonably exhaustive search in reliable sources for all information that is or may be pertinent to the identity, relationship, event, or situation in question.

Here, I want to continue that focus to describe my interpretation of reasonably exhaustive, but in less abstract terms. I uploaded a checklist of resources that are commonly used in genealogy research. At its core are the categories of resources that Val Greenwood developed. I included a few additions of my own. Reasonably exhaustive is not a term, however, that exists in a vacuum, which Step 1, above, suggests. Reasonably exhaustive is partly defined by two factors: (1) the research question for which you seek an answer, and (2) the records that still exist from the time and place in which your focal ancestor(s) lived.

From a research methodology perspective, there are two approaches to searching sources: (1) start with the most likely source first and expand outward as each of the more likely candidates fail to produce the needed information and (2) start with the widest possible list of sources and exclude those that are not relevant. The former strategy is one that many researchers follow. Within a given source, I, too, will use this strategy. But when pursuing the reasonably exhaustive goal, I use the latter approach. With the former approach, if you find the desired information in the 1st or 2nd source of several potential sources, there is a tendency to think that you’ve “exhausted” the sources. You did, in fact, find the event, etc in those searched sources, but you have not met the reasonably exhaustive criteria. There is more work to do. So I take the latter approach which meets the criteria only when all the sources have been examined. Let’s look at an example.

I research ancestors who lived in a fairly small region of South Carolina throughout the 19th century. All record types on my “master list” are potential resources for that reasonably exhaustive
search. At this point, a step-wise methodology for research actually begins to emerge. I review the list of record types and ask two questions of each record type: (1) Do records of this type still exist for the time and place in question, (2) Might records of this type contain information relevant to my research question? If the answer to both questions is “YES,” I mark that record type as “MUST RESEARCH.” If the answer to either question is “I DON’T KNOW,” then I will mark the record for research later. But, I don’t exclude it from further consideration just yet. If there are a lot of record types to explore, then I might prioritize them, but—and this is important—I will explore all that meet my criteria for inclusion—even if I locate the desired information in those records searched first.

A further example:

If I am looking for proof that Melinda Ann MOORE (b. ~1839) was the daughter of Daniel MOORE (b. ~1790), I know that marriage records were not recorded in South Carolina prior to the 20th century. However, deeds, wills, estate packets, marriage bonds, church records, even private papers of notaries, all might provide that information. Although tax lists did exist for the period, they would not contain relationship data, so I would exclude those records from my final list.

So my search list might include:

  1. Federal Census (1850 and later)+
  2. Vital Records –
  3. Civil Registrations +
  4. Church records +
  5. Cemeteries –
  6. Bible and family records +
  7. Funeral home records –
  8. Newspapers*
  9. Obituaries +
  10. Town records +
  11. Probate records +
  12. Land and property records +
  13. Military pensions +
  14. Guardianship records +
  15. Notarial records*
  16. Diaries, Journals –
  17. Letters –

Those record types with the plus sign (+) exist, but no information on the relationship could be found. Thos record types with a minus (-) at the end do not appear to exist. As it turned out, the 1850 census reported a daughter, named Mary Ann, born ca. 1839 in Daniel’s household. Not exactly a true hit. A newspaper notice of Melinda’s marriage to James Hamilton (no mention of parents’ names) give us evidence that her maiden name was MOORE. But a notary’s journal gave us the names of the bride and groom’s fathers. Daniel was Melinda’s father.

There are numerous systems out that that help you organize the research of sources, recording what you looked for in each source. I’m not going to discuss particular systems or software. I advise each researcher to find a system that works the way they think about their research. However you organize your work, use it consistently.

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A standard is like a yard stick. It is an measure of comparison for a quantity or quality; a criterion. As a matter of fact, a yard is a standard, as is an ounce, a dram, a meter, an acre, a degree, or any number of terms of measurement that we commonly use. Yet, these standards are standards of quantity. In other words, no matter who uses the standard (the yard stick), the value of that measure is independent of the person doing the measuring. Use a yard stick to determine the length of a piece of wood, the results will be the same whether you run the measurement or I do. However, unless qualitative standards are operationally defined using some objectively measurable equivalent, they are not independent of the person doing the measuring. Confused? Let’s see if I can simplify it a bit.

I stand at 5’4″. My grandmother was 4’11”. I consider my grandmother to be a short woman. My friend, Lucy, is 5’11”. I am a short woman to her. “Short” is a relative or qualitative standard. Here’s another example. Around 1800, Franz Josef Gall, a German physician, developed a theory that qualities of human traits, such as intelligence, honesty, loyalty, could be determined by examining the bumps and fissures of a person’s skull. Phrenology, the study of these bumps and fissures, was very popular throughout the 19th and even into the 20th century. (See a phrenology map at Wikipedia.) Later, some historians of psychology made a not-so-surprising observation about the interpretations of these maps used by Gall and later adherents. Those better, more refined traits were found on heads which were curiously shaped like the heads of the men who made the maps. There was not a criminal, a con man, or an idiot among these phrenologists. The important point to take away from these examples is: Unless you can separate the standard (of measurement) from the person applying the standard, you will have variance. Where you have variance, you have a pseudo-standard. Now, let’s turn our attention to the first step of the Genealogical Proof Standards.

The BCG Standards Manual describes the GPS as a 5-step process. The first of these steps is to:

conduct a reasonably exhaustive search in reliable sources for all information that is or may be pertinent to the identity, relationship, event, or situation in question.

I underscored those phrases that lack independence from the person applying the measurement. As a pseudo-standard, one cannot not know if what is being evaluated has achieved full measure of the standard. Exhaustive is a fairly objective term. It suggests that “no stone is left unturned.” However, reasonably is harder to pin down in any precise way. Depending upon the research question, the breadth of resources accessible to you, “reasonable” can vary. It can vary even among experts in the research area. How can you know that your search has been reasonably exhaustive? The truth is, you cannot know with any certainty. You can apply a series of “checklists” but still miss that critical source that was hidden.

For those researchers whose confidence or experience in the particular research area is still developing, consider starting with a checklist constructed from the seventeen chapters in Part II of Val Greenwood’s tome, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy. Greenwood discusses the more commonly used types of source found in genealogy today. Of course, as you discover other source types, add these to your checklist. For living ancestors, I add their oral histories, where applicable. For a few states, bibliographies and union catalogs have been published to give the genealogist an overview of what is available. Finally, talk to people, especially reference librarians at university libraries about collections. You can often work with a local reference librarian who can help you submit interlibrary loan requests (ILL) for items not available locally.

Another strategy that I use is reading social histories about the time and place where my research is focused. I read for two reasons: (1) to gain an understanding of the records that I expect to research and (2) to examine the book’s bibliography. Where social historians use original records, I can hope to find original documents pertinent to my own research.

I will address the fuzziness of reliable sources in another post.

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Hammering Cracks into Brick Walls: Numident Records

SSA-5 applications are wonderful sources for birth information and parents’ names. A related source is the database that is maintained by the Social Security Administration. While not an “original source,” it offers details not evident on the application. In some cases, it is the only remaining record available from the Social Security Administration.

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Estimates for Pendleton Population 1784

This is a companion article to “Dominion Over the Earth.” It describes the methodology used to estimate the population of white settlers in the upper part of Pendleton District 1784-1786, based upon the land grants issued during that period.

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Dominion Over the Earth

The article examines the historical background for the land grant settlement of northwestern South Carolina, USA. There has been confusion over when Cherokee relinquished their control over this region. Genealogists researching ancestors in this region might want to take special note. Map included.

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