Original or Derivative Sources: What’s the Big Deal?
Have you ever found a marriage listing of an ancestor in an online index or in a book of marriage abstracts and been so excited you didn’t question it? Just added the information to your database, researched the couple and their children and went merrily on your way?
I did this a few years ago, but unfortunately I connected the wrong marriage record to my ancestor. Essentially I married her to the wrong man. How did I completely miss the boat? It all has to do with original versus derivative sources.
An original source is just what it says, original: a handwritten marriage record in the county marriage book, a death certificate filled out at the time of the death, a birth entry of a child in a family bible at the time of birth.
Thomas W. Jones’ definition of original records is clear and succinct.
Original records are written reports of an action, event, or observation, often (but not always) made at the time of the event or soon after. Original records are not based on prior records.¹
On the other hand, a derivative record is created from the original: a book listing all of the county marriage records, a birth registration index, a will book abstracting pertinent information. As defined by Dr. Jones:
Derivative records are created from prior records by (1) transcribing a prior record or part of it by hand, keyboard, or optical-character recognition, speech-to-text, or other technology, (2) abstracting information from it, (3) translating it from one language to another, or (4) reproducing it with alterations.²
With all of the digitizing and indexing of records in our modern genealogy world, we’ve all experienced or will experience errors in the process of looking at an original record and trying to decipher the handwriting. It is no wonder that names or dates may be incorrectly reproduced in a book, online index, or other derivative record. We are grateful for the efforts of those who give their time to index or transcribe a record. The burden of genealogy proof is not with the indexer, it is with us, the researchers.
Do we always take the time to locate the original record. Do we look at the image provided by FamilySearch? Or do we just quickly attach the record and move on? We can make major errors if we are not careful to evaluate the sources we use.
For example, a few years ago I was researching my great great grandmother Eliza Ann Isenhour’s sister, Texana. I found a marriage record for a Texana in a Bell County, Texas marriage book. Her maiden name wasn’t Isenhour, but since the family lived in Bell County Texas, I thought it was probably her and linked her to the groom, J.W. Drake. I thought perhaps she had married previously and was using that name at the time of the marriage. How many Texana’s could there be in Bell County anyway? A few months ago, I returned to that family and warning bells went off in my head. Something didn’t seem right and I decided to revisit my research. I headed to the Family History Library and looked up the marriage record again in the book abstracting the marriages of Bell County, Texas.
I found the record of Texana married to J.W. Drake. Then another Texana caught my eye at the bottom of the page, “Texana Gochouner.” This marriage showed Texana married to a Richard Blevins. My Texana had a stepbrother named Richard Blevins, could this be the same family? Only one way to tell – I needed to look at the original marriage record in the microfilm. When I located the marriage record, my heart started racing. This was my Texana!
County Court, Bell County, Texas, “Marriages, 1850-1935,” v. D-E, Blevins – Isenhour marriage, 1870, FHL Film 981034, Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.
If you were indexing or abstracting this record, how would you have spelled Texana’s last name? I’ve used this example in several classes and not once has anyone come up with the correct name. But, because I knew what I was looking for, I clearly could read “Isenhowner” or “Isenhowuer.” I’ve seen this name spelled multiple ways, so this wasn’t a problem. I had my Texana and she wasn’t married to J.W. Drake. She married her stepbrother, Richard Blevins.
Turns out Richard Blevins married again about 1872, so Texana almost certainly died soon after their marriage in 1870. I haven’t been able to find any record of her after the marriage or mention of any children they had together. Locating the original marriage record made all the difference in getting Texana’s story right.
Recognize that derivative sources such as indexes, abstracts, and transcriptions can all introduce human error. The only way we can verify the information in a source is to view the original. The next time you might be tempted to quickly attach a source in FamilySearch Family Tree and move on, take a minute, view the original image. You won’t be sorry.
Best of luck in your research efforts!
¹Thomas W. Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof, National Genealogical Society Special Publication No. 107 (Arlington: National Genealogical Society 2013), p. 9
²Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof, p. 10.