Sources are Not Primary or Secondary

Saying something is primary or secondary is talking about how we came to know that information. Professional genealogists don’t use primary or secondary to refer to sources because one source can contain information that is primary and information that is secondary.

I was the informant for my mother’s obituary. I provided the information. I knew first hand the date and place of her death, where she would be buried, who here husband was, who her children and grandchildren were, and where she had worked. That information I provided was primary information.

The information that I provided about her date and place of birth, when she graduated from college, and when she started work was secondary information. I was not there when those things happened. My knowledge of that information is not first hand–it was something I was told or read on a document or record.

Calling information primary or secondary is not saying it is correct or incorrect. It is simply stating how we came to know the information. Those things in Mom’s life that happened after I was able to remember are things about which I have primary knowledge. Those things in her life that happened before I was born I do not have primary knowledge of.

For more about information analysis and source citation, see Evidence Explained: Third Edition Revised .

Are You in the Correct Century?

Someone asked me if it were true that I had researched a family back to the 17th century. I responded that I only had the family back to the mid-1700s. The 1700s are not the 17th century, they are the 18th century. In a similar fashion, the 1800s are the 19th century, the 1900s are the 20th century, etc.

The problem?

The 1st century was those years from year 1 through year 100.

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Pallbearers Bear Caskets and Clues

I had been looking for my great-grandfather’s one sister for some time and finding people with unknown death dates or places in the 1950-1960 era can be a challenge.

Until I located a reference to my grandfather, his brother, and four of their first cousins in a 1960 obituary. Their relationship to the deceased is not stated, but armed with a date I was able to locate other records.

There may be clues in the names of the pallbearers.

Website Reminder: One-Step WebPages

Stephen G. Morse has a number of search forms on his website for a variety of genealogy databases, often giving options not allowed on the sites themselves. There are also a variety of other search aids on his site.

Some of his search links do search fee-based sites, but that’s made clear on his site.

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Assuming It Is the One Nearby

It was an honest mistake, but it makes a good point.

My aunt moved several states away from her childhood home, but was buried “back home” with her parents in the “MapleGrove Cemetery.” The obituary for her in her local newspaper only indicated she was to be buried in the MapleGrove Cemetery.  No city or state of burial was listed.

A researcher saw the obituary and assumed that my aunt was buried in the nearest MapleGrove Cemetery she could find–in the state where my aunt died, not where she was buried. This cemetery was actually a hundred miles from where my aunt died, but in the same state–it was not within a few miles of her home.

Sometimes papers leave out “obvious” details. Sometimes they simply leave out important details.

Never add something to a document or record that is not there. Transcribe as it.

I’ve changed a few details to protect the innocent, but the essence of this story is true.

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Ninety Percent Correct Does Not Mean 100% Correct

Even if the essence of a document is true, it can still contain errors. Just because an item seems to have every detail correct,
there may still be factual or typographical errors. This 1932 obituary contains two minor errors–the age at death and the year of the marriage. The date of birth is consistent with other records (there is no birth record or family bible entry for her birth) and the date of death agrees with the death certificate.

Don’t assume that everything is right just because 90% of it is.

At least they used her name and didn’t just call her “Grandma.”

Five-Year Gap?

Review the chronology of all the records you have on a relative. Is there a five year gap when you have no record on the ancestor and don’t have indirect evidence that he never moved during that time? Is it possible that he moved during that gap in time to another place where he might have left records that have not been located?

Gaps in chronologies should always be investigated–just in case. The ancestor may never have left his residence, but you won’t know until you look.

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Did He Really Die?

Virtually every published source on Clark Sargent indicates that he died in 1847 or 1848 in Winnebago County, Illinois. The date appears in numerous online trees. It’s difficult to tell what late nineteenth century source is the “original” one that first published that date, but it seems reasonable that it was copied and repeated. It has made its way into numerous online trees.

Clark owned a small piece of property that’s sold in the early 1850s by his wife and her second husband. There is no estate settlement for him. There’s no guardianship for his children. It’s too early for a death record in Illinois. There is no extant tombstone. It is almost as he didn’t die in the late 1840s.

His daughter Emmar (Sargent) Osenbaugh indicated in a 1918  Civil War pension affidavit that her father left the family without ever being heard from again and that a few years later her mother married again.  She would have been old enough to have remembered him not coming back and lying about it would have served no purpose in the affidavit. So maybe he really did just run off.

At least it gives me something to think about.