The Importance of Genealogical Sources

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By Sherry Lindsay,

You might have heard the saying “Genealogy without sources is mythology.” Without sources, genealogy truly is mere hearsay. Knowing only that a piece of information originated from Great Aunt Minerva’s pedigree chart does not prove much of anything. While it may be interesting, it is certainly not factual without sources.

If you are interested in doing genealogy but feel like “everything’s been done,” working on citing the information you have is an excellent way to get started. You may be able to correct bad information, find new branches of your family that no previous researchers have found, or even cut out branches of your family that aren’t actually related to you.

Perhaps the information your family has always trusted is riddled with errors. As I’ve worked on citing sources, I’ve been able to find and correct several problems within my family tree. I find that correcting these problems has helped me find more information in spots of the tree that were previously thought of as “brick walls.” As it turns out, the spots were not brick walls, but were based on incorrect information, which is why we were unable to move on.

To add sources to your tree, simply select a part of the tree that is lacking sources. Then begin working on the family as if no information is known. For instance, you might have an unproven fact such as a specific death date in 1910. For something like this, which is very specific, you should be able to locate a death certificate rather easily. As you work through your tree, you will find that proving information can be quite similar to finding information. The primary difference in research, however, is that you are basing your search on much more information than you would ordinarily have. This can help you to narrow your searches to very specific localities and types of records.

You might also find that proving your tree is easier because your searches are based more on family groups instead of single names. For instance, rather than searching for a known ancestor and her husband, you might be searching for a known ancestor, her husband, and their eight children. This sort of foundation makes searching in most resources much easier because you are more likely to find at least one relative that you are looking for, and you are more likely to prove that the person you’ve found is the right one. For example, looking for a Stephen and Ann Sexton in the 1850 U.S. Census yields many results, but knowing that they had a daughter named Mary Ann and a daughter named Sarah can help you prove that your family is a match.

Once you’ve cited sources you might find that selecting families to work on becomes easier. When you’ve spent time looking for sources, you will find that you are more familiar with the different sources that are available to you, and knowing those can help you select areas of your tree that need work and are likely to be found in readily available sources.

You might also find families that no one has discovered, which can change your mantra from “it’s all been done” to “I thought it had all been done.”

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