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While some genealogists refer to sources as primary, secondary, and tertiary; others of us prefer to reference a source according to its own inherent reliability as fact. Each of these offers different types of information and each varies in reliability. The reliability of any source is determined by 1) the closeness of the person providing the information to the subject or location AND 2) the closeness of the report in relation to the time of the event.
Personal Knowledge is fairly reliable if presented honestly. When I state that I am a veteran of the Persian Gulf War and that I served in the Kuwait Theatre from January - May of 1991, that is "probably certain" information. Since I was present at the time AND I am the subject. If I provide a copy of my military discharge certificate (DD-214) which corroborates my assertion then the reliability increases to "almost certain" or even "certain". Were my son to provide the information without the DD-214 then the reliability reduces to "possibly certain" since he is removed in both person and place -- he wasn't there, he got the information second hand.
Personal Interview is only as reliable as the interviewee. In the example above, I could provide you with the information about my war experience and it is probably reliable information -- when you relate that information to someone else it becomes possibly reliable because you are removed in both time and place entirely, your restatement is subject to error.
Vital Records are generally prepared "at the time" and "by the subject" so they are, for the most part, almost certainly reliable sources. They are only reliable to the facts which relate to the time, place and subject though. A death certificate includes the names of the deceased persons parents -- this part of the information is removed in both time and place since the person making the report (unless it is the deceased's parent making the report) is removed in time and place. The information about the cause of death, place of death, date of death, etc... is properly placed in time and place. Consider all documents with these issues in mind -- determine which parts can be deemed reliable to what degree based on time and place.
Letters and photographs are generally a gold mine. They can contradict certain other documents which would ordinarily be considered fact. Consider maybe a letter I had written in the above example of my service in the Persian Gulf War; it provides a certainly reliable source as to where I was in early 1991 because of the postmark. That it is addressed to my parents by name and begins "Dear Mom and Dad" does not though prove that these people are my parents. In my case they are but, they could be adoptive parents or step-parents and still receive the same salutation. Using that letter to prove my parents names then is only possibly reliable.
Photographs are most useful when they have been identified relative to time (near when they were taken) by someone close in relation (preferably the subject). You can't assume that the photo of Uncle Joe in a model-T Ford was taken in the earliest part of the 20th Century, Uncle Joe may have been a collector of old cars much later. Clothing, hair styles, surroundings, etc... can all help to identify a photograph by time. A photo of Uncle Joe in a WWII Army Air Corps uniform standing next to an aircraft with Capt. Joe Smith painted under the canopy is a pretty solid genealogical and biographical source.
Some photos and drawings can also help establish ethnicity and/or affluence by examining the features of those in the photo as well as their clothing and surroundings. Even with an old photo though -- the melting pot of America has made many ethnic distinctions fade away completely.
Tombstone transcriptions are some of the easiest to acquire sources out there. While the death date information found there is almost certainly reliable, remember that the birth date information was provided by someone far removed in both time and place to the actual event. The birth information is more likely possibly certain. In the case of veterans memorials, that the individual named served in the conflict memorialized is almost certainly reliable since they were recorded near the time and place of the veterans service.
When using the resources of published works -- remember that the information contained in them is only as reliable as the source of that information. Many published works are meticulously sourced -- a few in the past were intentionally flawed. It is always best to use such works as possibly certain and to then search for the more reliable source of that data yourself.
Compiled works are similarly only possibly certain for the same reasons. Even more so with a compiled work since it is so easy for the person making the compilation to make a mistake, to include unproven data, or to misinterpret data from a source document. In this group are the many GedComs and family tree web pages that are finding their way onto the internet these days. I don't imply that these are inherently bad but only that as a source of information, they are only possibly certain. Such resources have been a great way to make contact with others researching the same ancestors and also a great way to finally learn who has that old family bible.
Family records are especially subject to omission of information. If vital information was added to the family bible as it occurred then the family bible is a fantastic source of information. For many of our ancestral problems, it is the only source of information. Insurance policies are also a good source of family vital data. School records are not just fun to read but provide location, parent, and age data. These documents are subject to omissions and even outright lies in some cases though. Especially when there is some financial benefit in applying a little creative record keeping. When reviewing such information -- if all of the writing appears to have been done by the same person at the same time -- it was probably created "after the fact" and then is subject to errors of memory and omission of embarrassing detail. Such a document prepared "after the fact" becomes a source between a personal interview and family tradition.
Family traditions are important! Far too many genealogists are quick to dismiss them because they don't fit nicely into the facts. Consider each such family tradition outside of the facts though and as if it were based at least in part on fact or need. Consider that it is a fact that I lived in Spain for three years and attended high school there. If an descendant a couple generations from now were to consider that he might have a really hard time verifying that as a fact since my birth certificate says I was born in Maryland and my high school diploma is from Mount Pleasant North Carolina. I lived in Maryland until I was three and I attended Mount Pleasant HS less than a year. Remember that the facts don't always negate the tradition. Consider too the common family traditions of Dutch, Black Dutch, Black Irish, German, Irish, French, Polish, etc.. descent -- these are rarely if ever recorded in vital records -- there is just no specificity there. The only way to prove them is to find the immigration record, and then that is still questionable without the original birth record. It doesn't make them false any more than my having lived in Spain for three years and attending high school there makes me Spanish; Even if there is a proved record that shows that I came to Virginia from Spain in 1978... ;-)
Always remember that your source citation should be what you actually heard or saw. If Cousin Susan says that Grandpa Jones had a brother named Frank and she knows this because she has Uncle Frank's obituary; your source is "Cousin Susan who states that Uncle Frank's obituary says..." and not the obituary itself unless you too get a copy of that obituary. Remember that a transcription or extract of the will of Uncle Frank is NOT the same as seeing the original will or a photocopy. Your source with a transcription is the transcriber and the transcribed document -- it is only probably certain or possibly certain because the transcriber could have made a mistake or a misinterpretation.
Any fact that is not absolutely certain is subject to redefinition when another fact of greater certainty is presented. And, it is possible for two contrasting facts to both be absolute. A document might reference great grand mother as Margaret while another references her as Peggy -- If she was known by both names then they are both her name...
last edited on Tuesday, August 13, 2002