But Those Records are Unreliable!

Years ago after a presentation, a gentleman came up and told me that I should not suggest people rely on census records or other “secondary records” for information.

While census records can be incorrect and information that’s secondary can be suspect, sometimes it is all that we have. My ancestor, Ellen Butler was born in Missouri in the 1850s. Her family moved frequently, did not attend any church that kept records, there is no family bible that I can find, and she died before there was vital registration of deaths as well. While I keep looking for a “better source” of information, there’s probably never going to be anything other than a few of census enumerations to estimate her year of birth.

Of course census records can be off and parental information listed in death certificates can be suspect. But when it’s all there is, it’s all there is and we cite everything we’ve located and see what conclusions can be reached. It doesn’t mean we quit looking or quit learning about new sources. But not every time place and location is the same.

What is available depends greatly upon the time period, the location, and the family. Documenting someone in Illinois in 1930 is different from Missouri in 1850 is different from Virginia in 1750 and and different from Massachusetts in 1700.

And…as astute readers will know information is primary or secondary and sources are original or derivative.