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

Monday, April 6, 2020

How to Analyze Genealogical Sources: Part One

It has been some time since I wrote about analyzing genealogical sources and so I am once again addressing this topic in a series of posts. First a bit of background.

To start out, I would strongly recommend that anyone who is interested in becoming a proficient genealogist read about the history of genealogy in America. This book is one of the very few that deal with this important subject. If you do not know the history of genealogy, you have no idea of the pitfalls and problems we are currently trying to resolve. Here is the book.

Weil, Fran├žois. Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2013.

Now to begin.

Many fields of study have a very specialized set of terms usually referred to as "jargon. My own profession, the legal profession is known for its arcane and almost impenetrable jargon but that is also the case with medicine and many other specialized professions. Genealogists also have a certain amount of jargon but it is certainly not as specialized or arcane as law or medicine.

As I have written about previously, over the years, genealogists have adopted and tried to adapt, mostly unsuccessfully, some of the more common legal terms particularly those dealing with the legal Rules of Evidence. I say unsuccessfully because only a very small number of genealogists understand or correctly use the evidentiary terms. The rest of the genealogical "jargon" is pretty mundane, not too specialized and hardly impenetrable. Unfortunately, the particular part of genealogy that has adopted the most "jargon" is that part having to do with "evidence." The most complete list of genealogical terms I am aware of is the following:

FitzHugh, Terrick F.H, and Susan Lumas. The Dictionary of Genealogy. London: A & C, 1998.

The prevalence of legal jargon in genealogy is due, in part, to the fact that some earlier prominent genealogists were lawyers and they automatically applied their own legal methodology to their genealogical research. The current basic concepts of genealogical evidence and proof are found in the writings of Elizabeth Shown Mills. Here are her two most important books.

Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence!: Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian. Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co., 1997.
———. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Pub. Co., 2007.

Another book that was influential in teaching a whole generation of genealogists is this one by Derek Harland.

Harland, Derek. Genealogical Research Standards: Instruction to Help Beginners in Genealogical Research. Salt Lake City, Utah: The Genealogical Society, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1975.

There are, of course, many other books. However, genealogy books are not easily found. The best source is to find a new or used copy, if available, on Amazon and buy the book. I have been collecting genealogy books for years from library discards and used book stores. 

Even though I have an extensive legal background, I have tried to employ a genealogical methodology that is not primarily based on legal jargon and words that have a strict legal meaning. The issue of maintaining a "genealogical" and historical research methodology and not overly infusing that methodology with legal terms is more difficult than it would appear. Because legal terminology has become part of our world culture due in large part because of the prevalence of law-related movies and TV series such as Agatha Christie's The Witness for the Prosecution and Perry Mason and their successors. Hence, a legion of genealogists has set out to "prove" their ancestry. 

The concept of having genealogical standards has been extensively codified by the Board for Certification of Genealogists or BCG. A substantial portion of those standards deals with evidence evaluation. The latest edition of these standards is contained in the following book. (Firm), and D.C.) Board for Certification of Genealogists (Washington. Genealogy Standards, 2019.

You can also see links and articles about the standards on the BCG website. There are very specific standards for researching, documenting, writing, and educators.

Now, the issue of analyzing a historical (genealogically significant) document is fairly complicated. The information contained on the document or record may be correct or not. It is entirely up to the researcher to evaluate the information and then form an opinion about its veracity. It is fairly common to find contradictory information in different records or documents. Copying information from an inaccurate document,  a book or other derivative records may result in perpetuating false information. This series of posts will not answer every question but it will, hopefully, provide you with a lot of questions and increase your ability to form more educated conclusions about the available historical records and documents.

Stay tuned


  1. The information on the Familysearch family tree under What are reason statements in Family Tree? gives examples which include the statement: “provides evidence of “ When I work with anyone adding a source, I have them use this statement 95% of the time. Is this a good idea?

    (If the source refers to themselves or a currently living person, or they are adding a deceased person (after doing a find) and they have intimate knowledge of that person, I have them put “personal knowledge “ until a source can be added to verify the information.

    I would like to know your thoughts on that.

    1. Adding a source is an opportunity to tell the rest of us where you got the information. If the information came from personal contact then that is the source. However, I suspect that using the tem "Personal Contact" is a bit of an excuse not to provided some more substantial information in the form of documents, histories, photos, etc. Thanks for your comment.

  2. I will work harder at this for myself and also for those I assist. I am not a great genealogist by any means at all, but when I do my own work or help others, I want the information to be as accurate and correct as possible. Thank you.

  3. How can I refine “personal knowledge/contact? For a family member or for yourself?

    1. I think you hit on a really good topic for a blog post. I will work on this one shortly. But the short answer is do you have your own birth certificate? Do you have a marriage certificate for a family member? Many living people are online in FamilySearch and on MyHeritage with documentation from City Directories and other sources. You just add what you can. I you were living in Africa and your only genealogy was oral history, that would be your source.

  4. Hello James,
    I have come upon mountains of death certificates, marriages certificates, histories, etc., belonging to my family for generations. I have put all of that on Thumb-drives and have distributed those to many families. I want to put it all in my Familysearch account under my name. I’m weak in adding documents to Familysearch. Is there a detailed, easy to understand Video in how to best handle putting mountains of documents in Familysearch?

    1. Thanks for the comment, I have sent you some information separately. The best organized instructions about FamilySearch Memories are on The Family History Guide.