Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, December 22, 2013

What is a genealogical source?

One issue confronting genealogists is the accurate identifying of documents, books and other items as original sources. The challenge is to determine which of all the copies contain the correct information.

Let me give an example of what I talking about. Let's suppose that we have an original will. I will call it the John Doe Will of 21 December 1713 (This is not the will shown above). Let's further suppose that there was a copy of that will made at the time of the probate transcribed into the Court record. Then the court record was transcribed in 2012 from a digital copy made of the court transcript. The original will was then digitized in 2013. Another transcript was made of the original will in 2013 that differs from the transcript in the court record in some significant details. Apparently, the court transcript was either incomplete or simply wrongly transcribed. Examination of the documents show that the 2012 transcript of the court record is correct and the 2013 transcript of the original will is also correct. So, there is a difference between the "original" will and the transcript of the court document purporting to be a transcribed copy of the will.

Now there is a very interesting question posed by this hypothetical. What is the legal effect of the changes made to the court's transcription of the original will? Legally, the will should have been probated exactly as it was written, but it is not impossible that provisions of the will could have been modified if the court heard convincing evidence that the document as originally written was defective. The absence of a reference in the court record to the accuracy of the copy or further an explanation of the changes would create a presumption that the changes were done with the knowledge of the court. Otherwise, the heirs would have detected the fact that the court copy, on which the disposition of the estate was based, was faulty. So which is the "original?" The only thing that can be concluded, assuming that a further search of the court record discloses no mention of a problem with the transcription, is that the original document was modified by the courts ruling. The court record is the "original." The original copy of the will should be ignored.

As a genealogist what would you think? I would guess that 9 times out of 10, the researcher would find the original will and consider that to be superior to any copy, even that of the court. What if the information in the so-called original will (the one presented to the court) mis-identified the heirs and that the evidence in the court correctly identified them and the court's copy was changed to conform to the facts as presented to the court under oath?

You can see from this hypothetical that the issue of an "original source" can be difficult to resolve. In the years I used as an example, copying a legal document, such as a will, into the court or town record was not unusual. Finding the original will document written by the deceased or under his or her direction would be very much less common although not impossible. If the researcher in the hypothetical were reversed, it is possible that the unreliable will could be found before the more reliable court transcript. But how many researchers would automatically accept the "original" will as correct over the copy. Especially since we all know how unreliable copies can be?

The answer to this question goes to the heart of issue over the definition of an original. Fast forwarding to today, it is no longer something we discuss in court. Copies of original documents are acceptable in court for all purposes and producing the original document is seldom necessary except in very limited circumstances such as when there is a dispute about the execution of the document itself rather than its contents. But of course, we are talking about photocopies today and back then, the copies would have all been transcriptions done by hand. But what I am positing here is a situation where the copy is unreliable, but the only evidence we have of its unreliability is the suspect transcript. Aren't we going to believe the original? I have already said that we are going to do exactly that.

Back to the hypothetical. In this case the second researcher is a stickler for accuracy. He examines the original will and notices the discrepancies. He then puts the entire document and the copies into a suspect category and does more research. His subsequent research validates the copy found in the court record and the researcher's distrust of the original will is also validated.

There are too many situations where something similar could have happened. No one source document should be accepted on its face unless other circumstances surrounding the creation of the document substantiate the contents. Don't believe all that you read and don't believe anything just because it is in print or reproduced digitally. Genealogists should always assume that the facts as supported by documentary evidence are entirely tentative. Every "fact" in our genealogical database is suspect awaiting further evidence.

Some researchers find living in an environment of doubt very disturbing. They cannot accept the fact that the names, dates, places and events in their files are subject to change. But change is inherent in the process of research. A researcher continually adjusts any theories to conform to newly discovered evidence. Unfortunately, a huge portion of the genealogical community blindly accept the first evidence they find and are confused and defensive when further evidence raises contradictions. This issue can be raised by something as simple as alternate spellings of a name in the U.S. Census records or as complicated as the example I gave above. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." I would also add adored by genealogists.

How do we then survive in an atmosphere permeated with doubt? It does make life difficult, I admit. The important thing is to view evidence objectively and not become married to your evidence. This attitude does not extend to basic beliefs about life. But as René Descartes is reported to have said, "If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things." Descartes also said, "When it is not in our power to determine what is true, we ought to follow what is most probable."  One last Descartes quote, "Doubt is the origin of wisdom."


  1. My problem with injecting DNA into genealogy research comes from changing scientific "truths" over time. The Synaptic Scoop, 18 Jun 2013, discusses "neurogenesis". Significantly, [The more 14C that is in the atmosphere, the more it is integrated into our own body’s DNA when new cells are created.] Researchers found that [Atmospheric detonation of atomic bombs from 1955-1963 shot worldwide 14C levels through the roof.] This can be compared with solar activity.

    [From a constant stream of particles in the form of solar wind to the unpredictable bombardment from solar flares and coronal mass ejections, Earth often feels the effects of its stellar companions.]
    [When the twisted field lines cross and reconnect, energy explodes outward with a force exceeding that of millions of hydrogen bombs.]

    From a historical standpoint, [On Sept. 1, 1859, the Carrington Event was [the largest geomagnetic storm ever recorded.] [Just before dawn the next day, skies all over planet Earth erupted in red, green, and purple auroras so brilliant that newspapers could be read as easily as in daylight. Indeed, stunning auroras pulsated even at near tropical latitudes over Cuba, the Bahamas, Jamaica, El Salvador, and Hawaii.]

    Additionally, scientists do not understand the how and why of a tropic environment for the North Pole region. [Researchers are not sure what caused the sudden boost of carbon dioxide that set the greenhouse effect on broil. Possible culprits could be huge releases of methane from the ocean, gigantic continent-sized burning of trees, or lots of volcanic eruptions.]

    Nevertheless, the fact remains (that due to the changes in solar radiation and intensity on different earth areas over time); using DNA as a biological constant over time that can be used to identify human ancestry, is technically and scientifically incorrect; forever outside the scope of being a primary source tool for competent genealogical or family history research, especially prior to written records.

    [Accordingly, (14)C may prove to be a source of genetic alteration that is impossible to avoid due to the universal presence of radiocarbon in the environment.]

  2. After reading the 2014 rootstech Session Viewer, I felt it expedient to add the following references to further justify my immediate concerns.

    [Analysis of two ancient trees found a surge in carbon-14 -- a carbon isotope that derives from cosmic radiation -- which occurred just in AD 774 and AD 775, the team report in the journal Nature on Sunday.] In Tree Rings, Japanese Scientists Find 8th-Century Mystery

    [The story begins, in a sense, in classrooms around the world, where students are taught that the rate of decay of a specific radioactive material is a constant. This concept is relied upon, for example, when anthropologists use carbon-14 to date ancient artifacts . . . Their findings strengthened the argument that the strange swings in decay rates were caused by neutrinos from the sun. The swings seemed to be in synch with the Earth's elliptical orbit, with the decay rates oscillating as the Earth came closer to the sun (where it would be exposed to more neutrinos) and then moving away.] The Strange Case of Solar Flares and Radioactive Elements

    [Naturally occurring radioactivity muddles DNA - Natural radioactivity within DNA can alter chemical compounds, providing a new pathway for genetic mutations.] Welcome to The Visible Embryo