Original, Derivative, Primary and Secondary

In current genealogy parlance sources (record books, vital records, marriage records, etc.) are said to be original or derivative. Original records are ones that are in their “first form.” Derivative records are ones that are created from original records–transcriptions, abstracts, summaries, compilations, and the like. Technically, according to some, scans and photographic reproductions are derivative copies as well but they certainly are more reliable than hand written copies.

Information is considered to be primary or secondary. Generally speaking, a piece of information reported or stated by someone who had first hand knowledge of the event is considered primary. The statement needs also to have been made when the person’s memory was fresh and reliable. Other statements are usually said to be secondary.

This classification system is not meant, by itself, to determine how reliable a piece of information or a source is. It’s just meant to discuss the form of the record and the source of information.

You can find out more about evidence analysis and interpretation in Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, Third Edition by Elizabeth Shown Mills

Was the Mortgage Paid Off?

If you’ve found a mortgage for an ancestor, try and determine if there was a record made of the mortgage being paid off.

In some locations these “pay-offs” are filed separately in the same office where the mortgages are recorded. They may be referred to as “releases” or some other word suggesting that the title to the real property is no longer subject to the mortgage payment. It may also be that the original record of the mortgage has a notation signed by an official or the original noteholder.

If there’s no indication the mortgage was paid off, consider searching for court records where the property was foreclosed upon. If that fails, search through land records for the property in question.

A Deed of Trust

A deed of trust is slightly different from a mortgage. Our discussion is from a laymen’s perspective as we are not lawyers.

A mortgage generally has two parties: the borrower and the lender. The borrower puts up in their interest in a piece of property to secure the repayment of the debt that the borrower has borrowed from the lender.

A deed of trust has three parties: the borrower, the lender, and a trustee. The borrower assigns their interest in the property to the trustee during the repayment term. The trustee can sell the property if the borrower defaults on the loan. The trustee’s interest in the property exists while the loan is being repaid. After repayment, the borrower again has title to the property.

Who Was the Lender

If a relative has several mortgages over time on a piece of property, it can be tempting to gloss over them as not really being as genealogically relevant as other documents. That can be a mistake. Sometimes the lenders or the holders of the note are not a financial institution or an individual who makes their living loaning money.

Sometimes they are relatives. Always give a little time to see from whom your ancestor borrowed money. This illustration is from an 1879 trust deed where the husband and wife borrowing money against their farm are borrowing it from the wife’s mother and step-father.

Those relationships are not stated in the record and usually are not stated in the record. The legal agreement is about who owes money to whom, how much money is owed, the item put up as collateral, the terms of repayment, etc.

Remember that in the United States real estate mortgages are usually filed in the same office as the land deeds since their existence impacts property titles.

A Birth Means…

A child being born in location A means the mother was in location A at the time of the birth. It does not necessarily mean that the father was in location A at that same time as well. One cannot assume that the father was present at the birth, nearby at the time, or even in the same town. One also cannot assume the father was even alive at the time of the birth.

I recently wrote about a piece of information that was on my father’s birth certificate and almost stated that my grandparents (plural) were at the hospital when he was born. My grandmother was. While I’m reasonably certain my grandpa was there as well, I do not know that Grandpa was at the hospital because I was not present at my father’s birth.

The father and mother were in the same location when the child was conceived, not necessarily when the child was born.

Genealogists know how babies are conceived (or they really should), but occasionally forget basic knowledge when distracted by other information or are focused on a different aspect of the story or the record.

When it comes down to it, a great deal of genealogy is about babies and their conception. Don’t forget the basics.

Atypical Details?

There are times when documents are not standard from one area of the country to another. This 1941 birth certificate from Lee County, Iowa, asks how long the mother had been in the hospital and in the community before the child was born.

In this case, the answer to both those questions were three hours and it’s suggestive of the mother going to the hospital for the explicit purpose of delivery. The residence of the mother 15 miles away would also be a a clue.

While I’m not certain why the questions were asked, the hospital in question did draw a number of out of town residents. It’s likely someone in the vital records office was interested in knowing that information and the only to know that is to ask.

But it’s neat little bit of information as it tells me how soon before the delivery the mother arrived at the hospital.

What Are You Looking At?

A correspondent indicated that a database on a certain website had multiple dates of marriage for several of his ancestors. My correspondent wanted to know what the different dates meant.

It was difficult for me to say without knowing the time period, the location, and the type of record from which the dates were pulled. Like many events in life, marriage is a process that usually takes place over time. A couple meets, courts/dates, gets engaged, decides when to get married, decides where to get married, gets permission or license to get married, gets married.

Those events may happen in very close proximity or they may be extended over a long period of time. Some of those events generate records with dates on them, particularly the permission to marry (if necessary), license (if the location requires it), and actually getting married part. If there is a license or other marriage record, it eventually gets recorded. Those records all have dates associated with them. Not all of those dates are the marriage date.

Databases may not clearly indicate what the “date” associated with a marriage actually is. That’s why the researcher needs to look at the actual record to determine what it was. Permissions, licenses, and banns being published indicate there was an intention to get married. Marriage records, returned licenses, and completed marriage certificates indicate the marriage took place.

Know what you are looking at. Know what it means. Interpret it correctly.

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A Picture Book for Memories

Sometimes memories take a while to come back. One way to help jog a person’s memories is to show them pictures. But shuffling through a hundred family photos in a two hour interview is not possible. One option may be to create a picture book for the interviewee to write in at their leisure or for them to view before you actually interview them.

Digitize photographs you want to use to help the interviewee remember family members or long-forgotten stories. Put them in some sort of book format, leaving plenty of room for the person to write on the page next to the picture. There are numerous websites that allow you to publish such books of photographs or you could even simply put them in your favorite word processing program as a document and print them out, putting them in some sort of folder.

Your relative could leaf through the pages at their leisure and write down what they remembered, call you when they remembered something, or even make voice recordings when something popped into their mind.

The book, however it is created, should include page numbers or image numbers to make it easier to know which image is being referred to.

Sensitive Topics to Step On?

When interviewing a family member, it’s important to think about how hard you will question a person on topics that you know they are sensitive about. How much you will press for details really depends on your relationship with the person being interviewed, the mental health of the person being interviewed, and the nature of the sensitive topic.

There’s not one answer to how far a certain topic should be pressed for an answer and the interviewer should always keep in mind how likely it was that the interviewee was personally involved and impacted by the events in question.

It’s also worth remembering that while there may be sensitive topics of which you are already aware, there may be others of which you have no previous inkling. Pay attention to body language, facial expressions, tone of voice and other clues that you may be asking about something where’s there a “story” of which you are unaware. Depending upon the reaction it may be best to make a note of the reaction and move on to something else.

This is especially true if the person has family pictures or other items which you would like to view, get images of, preserve, etc. It’s also true if the person is a close family member with whom you had a close relationship before you ever started your genealogy.

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