Confirming Individuals and Relationships
By Dale E. Lee
- Birth Certificates
- Marriage Certificates
- Death Certificates
- Military Records
- Grave Sites
- County Records
- Company events
- Family Organizations
Be wary of falling into the trap of thinking that if Aunt Mertle said something about the family tree that what she said is the gospel truth. What Aunt Mertle said may have been to the best of her memory, but may not be entirely true. As a Family History Seeker you should use what the family said as a set of interesting clues that can shorten the path to finding out what happened, but what really happened should be in the context of whatever proof you can find along the way. And by proof I meant original source documents.
My grandparents did some pretty extensive research into our family history and my Grandfather was asked to lead up the research for the Lee Family Organization at one point in time. He was a surgeon and very methodical in how he approached the research. But even with all their care, I saw a note on one of my Grandmother’s family group sheets that stated that a professional genealogist they’d hired “thought” that our ancestor was linked to a royal line.
Well that may feel all warm and fuzzy, but if it turns out not to be true, you could be doing someone else’s family history research for them.
Get Proof, if at all possible!
I’ve listed the top 10 ways to find factual information in the summary above, in order of priority. Note that the records available are dependent on several factors such as country, time period, destruction of records, etc. For example, certain countries had periods which birth records did not exist, but christening records did. Start with where you are and get specialized help when traveling back in time and place.
Censuses are one of the best locations to start, that is, if they are available. They are one of the best places to extract information on relationships between Parents and Children. Note, however, the further back in time you go, the less information was collected in those Censuses. You’ll find that in the early days of censuses, you may be able to get the name of the Head of Household, but not of anyone else in the family. Some only give a count of the family members. And remember, as the National Archives states “On January 10, 1921, a fire in the Commerce Department building, Washington, DC resulted in the destruction of most of the 1890 census…”.
– Birth Certificates
Birth Certificates can be very useful in getting exact names, dates and places, and may even contain Parent information. But you can’t depend on getting relationship information from all of them, especially if the Father is unknown. They may also be more a little difficult to obtain if the right to privacy rules have been applied. Try searching for them using Websites with search capabilities first. Then failing that, find the county the event occurred in and contact the County Records. Note they can also be falsified. One coworker told me personally hers was falsified to avoid issues with taxation. A certified document is very good documentation, but even it can be erroneous.
– Marriage Certificates
Marriage Certificates are useful to relate those married in an official wedding and recorded at the County level and may contain information on the Parents of those being married. The problem is that the further back in time you go, the less information you may get. To verify the person of interest is actually your ancestor it is important to review all the surrounding information you can get. If you know the Persons name, birth date, and place, the Person’s parents or children, and the record correlates to your known facts, you are more assured that they are really your ancestor, even when the name may be common and used by many other people in the same county and time frame. Some marriage certificates do not contain much more than the marriage date and the husband and wife’s names. This makes it a bit more difficult even when you do find a record with the right spouse’s names. A marriage certificate is a good source document, but always check for other corroborating information.
– Death Certificates
Death Certificates are also good primary sources of documentation and higher priority than Family Bibles or hearsay. They are usually more readily available after the event than Births and are part of public records. Normally there is an assumption that if a person dies, it is less likely their personal information can be used for identity theft, as the social security administration is notified immediately, and their death is visible to those that are considering giving out loans of other valuable assets. Depending on the country, birth, death and marriage records may be kept in a central location, as in England, or at the county level as in the US, or some other arrangement depending on the country involved.
– Christening Records
Christening Records are almost as valuable as birth records and in some cases even more so, as birth records may not exist in a particular country for a particular time period. Great inroads have been made into digitizing Christening records, but access to the records is controlled by the Church or Parish involved and the quality of the records is dependent on the care taken by that Church or Parish. There may still be many Parishes which have not yet had their records digitized, but most are now realizing that bad things can happen to records, and they should be digitized to preserve them, as the Irish are well aware of because of skirmishes with the English over the centuries.
– Military Records
Military Records can be valuable in indicating where the person resided and what status the person obtained at a particular time in the military. However, they do not have a lot of relationship information in them that helps to distinguish between your ancestor and someone else with the same name. Due diligence should be used to find those relationships before accepting the military record as fact without other corroborating information. Again, the further back in time, the less informative these records tend to be.
– Grave Sites
Grave Sites can be useful when other documentation cannot be found. People have rubbed charcoal over gravestones to show the print more clearly when the stones are well worn by weather. Others have taken pictures and have submitted them to on-line websites. Gravestones can be very useful, even in showing relationships at times, but some are so uninformative as to simply state “Dad” or “Baby”, and that’s it. Though not as good of documentation as primary sources of information, it is another means of proving the person existed and certainly exciting to those that haven’t found any other information.
Don’t forget newspapers when seeking for your ancestors. Obituaries can be a useful means of discovering relatives. Many obituaries list those that survive the deceased, as well as giving a historic background on parents and even friends. But there are also other things newspapers can indicate, such as awards given to them in their community or companies, newsworthy stories and the legal organization of new companies they may create. Not everything in a newspaper is an advertisement.
One of the best ways to get started on your Family History adventure is to ask your family. I’ve found that by simply telling your relatives that you are interested in Family History is a powerful way of having people funnel genealogical information to you. If Uncle Joe knows that he is getting old and there is someone in the family that will care for all of the careful work he’s put into collecting the information, he will feel more comfortable with giving you that documentation than in worrying about relatives that will be so callused as to throw out all that work and effort he’s done once he is gone, they need to dispose of his property and they have limited time to do so. If you become interested in your relatives, they’ll become interested in you. And you may find that they’ll give you pictures, wills, stories and even Family Bibles you didn’t know existed.
Family Organizations can be very helpful in committing resources to seek out Family History data. If you don’t have one, start one. There are books available that can train you on how to create and manage Family Organizations. For example, my wife knew that her Grandmother had done research on her lines, but didn’t think there was much on her father’s line as he had not personally been involved in the effort. However, after finding that there was indeed a Family Organization on her father’s side, we contacted it and found that her father’s line traced back to the 1600s in America. AND they had published three volumes of that common ancestor’s descendants, including HER. I was able to trace all the way back from her to the common ancestor by following the trail in the books it published. You never know.
If you made it to this point in the article, I have a bonus for you.
If you can’t find information on the ancestor you’re looking for, look for surrounding information on siblings and other relatives. One person related that they couldn’t find anything on their ancestor until they looked for his brother. Once the brother was found, the documentation they found for the brother also contained information that pointed back to their ancestor. Case solved.
There are also other resources you may not have considered. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has Family History Centers in many of their Church buildings and they are open to the public and free to use. They also have Regional Centers that have many holdings, computers, on-line access and other aides in helping you seek out your ancestors. Don’t limit yourself on the resources that are available to you. I have been and am now a Family History Consultant. Come see us!
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