Primarily Searching for Primary Information

Genealogy terminology can be frustrating for beginning and experienced family researchers. However a certain amount of understanding is helpful so that one can understand what others mean and because that understanding can make your research stronger.

Primary information is one of those terms. “Information” isn’t often defined in the genealogical literature and we’ll save a discussion of that for another day.. However, primary information is information obtained from someone who had first hand knowledge of the information they are conveying. Ideally, they are sharing that information while their memory is accurate. Any other information is said to be secondary.

Whether a given piece of primary information is correct is another story. 

Grabbing the First One: Does It Fit What Is Already Known?

From a few years back…

Don’t just grab the first record that seems to match the names of the individuals for whom you are looking and assume that it’s the “right people.” It may or may not be them. There can be husband and wife couples with the same or similar names living in the same country, state, county, parish, etc.–particularly if the names are relatively common. Those couples can be unrelated to each other, particularly if the geographic distance is significant. They couple be cousins of the couple of interest–which still means that you’ve got the “wrong people” just wrong people who are related.

Records in the United States all indicate that my Irish immigrant forebears were in Canada by the mid-1860s and that they started having children by the late 1860s. US census records and later death records for the children all consistently indicate that the children were born in Canada or in the United States–some providing a specific location in Canada which helped me to locate the parents’ marriage record. Fully researching the family where they settled also resulted in the location of a brother of the immigrant and that brother’s records allowed me to locate where the family was from in Ireland.

A researcher insisted the couple was married in Ireland because a couple matching their names popped up in an index of Irish marriages–no explanation for the geographic discrepancy. The date was inconsistent with other information known about the couple and their children. It could be that the couple who popped up in the index was them–but the researcher would need to explain why since that date and place was chronologically and geographically inconsistent with what is already known. And there already was a marriage record for that couple with the same names in the place their children were born a year or so before the oldest one arrived.

That couple is probably them.

File Them Together

Years ago, I had a quick translation done of this postcard. Over the years the translation became separated from the card. I should have appended the translation to the image, put them both in one PDF file, or stored them in a separate folder as two separate documents-the image and the translation. Make certain that documents that really need to be filed together are filed together in a way that they won’t get separated. 

Where are the Delayed Birth Certificates?

Individuals whose birth was not recorded when they were born may have filed for a delayed birth certificate when they reached the age of majority, realized they needed a certificate and did not have one, applied for a social security number, or a combination of reasons. The majority of delayed birth certificates in the United States were filed for individuals who lived into the 1930s and beyond.

How the delayed certificates are filed depends on the location. Some kept an entire separate set of certificates that were filed some time after the fact. Some areas just filed the delayed certificates with the original certificates filed when the individual was born. Some changed their procedures over time.

Find out how areas in which you have an interest filed these records.

It’s Wrong and It’s Not Official

For years, the local plat book showing where landowners properties were located in the county where I am from contained at least one error of which I was aware.

I was aware because I heard it from my parents. The creator of the plat book had switched the locations of two properties: some pasture ground my parents owned and a local subdivision. The error remained in the plat book for nearly thirty years.

Did it really matter?

No. The local plat book was not an official record and most relatively modern plat books showing locations of real property and their owners include caveats regarding the potential for errors in their publications. Even if the maps were created from official records, these privately published plat books are not legal documents.

What really mattered in terms of the pasture ground my parents owned was that the deed described the property correctly (which it did) and that they paid taxes on the correct parcel of land (which they did).

Errors are errors, but sometimes they don’t matter as much as we may think they might.

Your Ancestors’ Stories

It does not matter whether you are a professional genealogist, an occasional “hobbyist” researcher, or somewhere in between:

Your ancestors’ stories deserve to be told as accurately as possible.

It does not matter how fast you research them. It does not matter how much information you discover or collect. It does not matter how long it take to obtain information, sort it out, and compile it. What does matter is working to collect information that reflects their life and their story as accurately as you can.

That means not just copying information from other trees or sites without analyzing it and thinking about it. That means not sharing or disseminating information that is mere speculation without some sort of source or documentation to back it up. It also means reporting the good along with the bad.

Lessor Versus Lessee

If a document refers to your ancestor as the lessor on lease–he owns the property that is the subject of the lease. If your ancestor is referred to as the lessee, he is the person being given temporary use of the property. The lessor owns it, the lessee borrows it–generally speaking.

Leases are not often recorded. If there was a disagreement about the interpretation of the lease or if the lessor or lessee refused to live up to their obligations under the lease, a court action may have been the result. In that case the lease may be contained in the court records.

Before You Will Your Genealogy “Stuff”

A reminder from a few years back:

Putting a clause in your will that “my genealogical papers are to go to the BlahBlah Library” without some advance planning could have unintended consequences.

Some thoughts on preserving your “files” and papers by donating to a library or archives:

  • libraries may not want or be able to maintain random copies of public records that are available elsewhere
  • libraries may not want or be able to maintain random copies made from published books
  • unorganized materials are difficult for libraries to inventory and manage and they are difficult for patrons to use
  • photographs, personal certificates, and other “unique” items are more likely to be preserved and collected, but it can be difficult for some facilities to afford to maintain these collections–consider leaving some financial legacy (if possible) to assist in long-term maintenance
  • ask first to determine if the facility can or is willing to take your collection
  • again–ask first
  • organize your material while you are still able to. Make continued organization of your materials a regular part of your research process. You never know when that day may come when your donation clause will go into effect.
  • one last time–discuss this with the recipient first.

We will continue to have occasional posts on this topic. We don’t have all the answers, but we want readers to become educated about these concerns so they can make decisions and take action while they are still able to.

When your death certificate is being filed at the local records office—it’s too late.

Genealogy Tip of the Day book is here. Learn more about it.

When It’s Not There

When someone does not come up in an index, here are some things to think about:

  • have you considered all alternate spellings?
  • have you double checked what you put in the search boxes (right names in right boxes, no boxes with information from “old searches,” etc.)?
  • could the person be in the record under a different last name (step-father, new husband, etc.)?
  • have you used wildcards to expand your searches?
  • do you know the index is complete or is it in “process?”
  • are you certain the person really should be in the record?
  • do you know how the original records were organized and preserved?
  • have you performed a manual search of the records?
  • have you asked someone else for a suggestion?