Research Like a Pro, Part 2: Analyze Your Sources
Do you have a stack of research for a problem ancestor? The one who is hard to pin down. The one with unknown parents. How do you even get started on the brick walls in your family tree? Join in this summer’s Research Like a Pro series and see if you can make progress in your research skills and journey in finding your family. To read more about the process, check out my book, Research Like a Pro: A Genealogist’s Guide.
In Researching Like a Pro, Part 1, your task was to analyze your pedigree then formulate a research objective. Your objective needed to have key identifiers and you were to write it down. Whether you are using a research notebook or an electronic document, you need a place to write down your objective and the analysis you’ll be doing next. I use Google Docs so that my information is available on all of my devices.
Once you’ve created and written down your research objective, what’s the next step? Revisiting the records that you or others have already found. Often the key to your research problem is found within those sources. A professional researcher doesn’t waste time looking for previously located information, instead he first analyzes the client’s existing records. Consider yourself your own client and do the same.
Dig out all of your papers and look at all of the sources on the online trees. Make sure you have a place to keep track of your questions and the records you want to search, also known as a research log. See Research Logs: The Key to Organizing Your Family History for ideas on formats and how to get started.
When you’ve gathered all of the source documents for your ancestor, a thorough analysis of each of those sources and the information found within can clarify what you know and point you to your next avenue of research. Several types of analysis will help you look at your records.
Create a Timeline
One of the best ways to look at your ancestor’s records is to make a timeline of their life. Record each family event, the date and place, and your source of the information. Look for inconsistencies. Was your ancestor in two places at once? Are you missing a census? Write down your thoughts, questions, and ideas for records to check in your research log. For more ideas and helps, see my post “Track Your Family with a Timeline.”
Check the Dates
Now that you’ve organized the information into a timeline, take a look at all of the dates. Are the ages of the couple compatible to their marriage date? Are the children all born within their mother’s childbearing years? Was your ancestor old enough to be taxed, own land, serve in the military? Really look at your ancestor’s life and decide if the life events you’ve recorded in the timeline make sense. Take notes of inconsistencies and records to search as you go and write them down in your research log.
Analyze the Evidence
As you’re evaluating the sources and information that they hold, take the time to completely analyze the evidence. Elizabeth Shown Mills has an excellent visual and explanation of sources, information, and evidence in her QuickLesson 17: The Evidence Analysis Process Map. Confused by those terms? Here is a quick explanation:
Source: material or person that contains genealogical information. A source can be an artifact like a sampler or photograph. Certificates, censuses, books, deeds, DNA, newspapers, and church records are some of the sources commonly used. As Tom Jones writes:
Source refers to an entire item, not the information or evidence within it. In other words, sources are containers, not contents.¹
Sources are divided into three categories. Understanding the true nature of a source will help you to evaluate the information it holds. For more helps and examples on sources, see my post “Original or Derivative Sources: What’s the Big Deal.”
-Original source – the actual document or image of it: censuses, certificates, ships passenger list, etc.
-Derivative source – indexed or abstracted information created from an original record: indexed marriage collection on FamilySearch, a book listing all the gravesites in a cemetery, an abstract of a will on an online family tree.
-Authored source – an online family tree, a family story, a biographical sketch, a research report, etc.
Information: The facts found in the source. These can be dates, places, names, occupations, religions, land description and much more. An important detail when looking at the information is to determine who gave that information. This person is called the informant. Information comes in three types:
Primary information: Given by a person who witnessed the event first hand. A mother reporting the birth of her child in a family bible would be considered primary information.
Secondary information: Given by a person who first obtained the information somewhere else, then reported it. That same child recording his birth on his draft registration would be secondary information. Although he was present at his birth, his mother told him his birthday.
Indeterminable information: Sometimes it’s unclear who is the informant, such as in a census record. You can make a guess, but it’s impossible to know who gave the names, ages, and birthplaces that are contained in a census record (until 1940 where an x marks the informant).
One source can have both primary and secondary information. A death certificate for example contains primary information – the date and place of death, generally filled out by the attending doctor who witnessed the death. That same death certificate can also include secondary information- the birthdate and parents of the individual – given by the informant who is often the next of kin. If they were not present at the birth, this information is based on hearsay and is secondary information.
Evidence: evidence is what you pull from the source information to answer your research question.
Direct evidence: The information clearly states the answer to a research questions, such as the date on a marriage certificate. answering when a couple married.
Indirect evidence: The answer to your research question has to be deduced by combining two or more facts. A woman listed as the mother-in-law of the head of household in a census record could be deduced to be his wife’s mother.
Negative evidence occurs when your ancestor is not listed in a time and a place he should be. If he had been paying taxes on a piece of property for ten years and suddenly disappears, that would signify that he moved or died.
Why does this matter? We can miss important clues and even come to the wrong conclusion about our ancestor if we don’t clearly analyze the records.
Practice with Analysis
For example, let’s look at the birth certificate for my great aunt, Dora Christine Shults.
Example #1: Birth Certificate of Dora Christine Shults
Answer these questions to test your understanding of sources, information, and evidence:
-Is this birth certificate an original, derivative source, or authored source?
-Is the information primary, secondary, or indeterminable?
-Is the evidence direct,indirect, or negative?
-Are there any inconsistencies that should be noted?
Is this birth certificate an original or derivative source? Original, although an image, it appears to be complete without any tampering.
Is the information primary, secondary, or indeterminable? The attending physician, Dr. Castleberry appears to have filled out the certificate. His signature matches the handwriting for the certificate information. He certifies that he attended the birth of Dora so the birth date of 11 February 1925 is primary information, as is the name of the mother. However other information he reported is secondary: “Dora Khristine’s” birth order of 6, the age and birthplaces of the father and mother, the number of children born to the mother and now living.
Is the evidence direct or indirect? The certificate contains direct evidence of “Dora Khristine’s” birth and the “Shultz” family. The physician clearly answered the questions on the certificate. We don’t have to infer anything.
Are there any inconsistencies should be noted? The certificate was filed 8-6-1925, probably August 6, 1925, the usual writing of dates in the United States. Dora’s reported birth took place on 11 February 1925. How reliable was this physician’s information? Given that he apparently filed it several months after that fact, it is understandable that almost all of the information on the certificate is incorrect.
Her certificate does correctly state her parents as “W.H. Shultz” and “Dora Royston,” but her date of birth is incorrectly listed as 11 February 1925 instead of 11 January 1925. How do I know this is incorrect? Other sources give information that contradict. Dora died giving birth to her baby, Dora Christine. The death certificate shown below was also filled out by Dr Castleberry; but in this case it was filed the same day, the day of the birth of Dora Christine and the death of her mother, Dora Algie: 11 January 1925.
Analyzing and comparing the information I have gathered from all of the sources located for this family I note the following errors on the birth certificate shown above.
Birth date (11 February 1925 instead of 11 January 1925)
Number of children born to the mother (six – should be ten)
Number of children now living (six – should be eight)
Spelling of “Khristine” (should be Christine)
Spelling of the last names as Shultz instead of Shults
Age of William (50 – should be 47)
Age of Dora (38 – should be 42)
Although the birth certificate was an original source and directly answered the questions, careful examination and correlation with other records proved the information to be mostly inaccurate.
Example #2: Death Certificate of Dora Algia Shults
Now try answering the same questions for the death certificate of Dora Christine’s mother, Dora Algia Shults.
Is this death certificate an original or derivative source?
Is the information primary, secondary, or indeterminable?
Is the evidence direct or indirect?
Are there any inconsistencies that should be noted?
Is this death certificate an original or derivative source? The image of the death certificate is considered an original source. It is complete and doesn’t appear to have been tampered with in any way.
Is the information primary, secondary, or indeterminable? The listing of the date of death and Dora’s name is primary information, given by G.G. Castleberry, the attending physician. W.H. Shults, Dora’s husband was the informant for her personal information. Because he was not present at her birth, her birth date and place are secondary information. His listing of her parents could be primary or secondary, depending on if he knew them personally. His naming of their birthplaces would be secondary, as he was not present at their births.
Is the evidence direct or indirect? The death certificate clearly answers the questions and is direct evidence.
Are there any inconsistencies should be noted? There is some crossing out on the report of Dora’s age, suggesting a possible error. Further research on the Royston family discovered that Dora’s father, R.C. Royston was actually born in Alabama, not Georgia. Her name was always spelled by the family “Dora Algie Royston.”
As you analyze what you’ve accumulated for your ancestor, really take the time to understand the source and the information it holds so you can pull out the evidence items you’ll need to answer your research question.
Your task for the next three weeks is to revisit everything you have found about your ancestor. Look at the sources on the FamilySearch Family Tree. See what other’s have found on Ancestry public trees. Make a timeline for your ancestor, check the dates, and analyze the evidence. Use the free timeline analysis template we shared here. Write all of your questions, hypotheses, and ideas for future research in your research notebook, document, or log. Find our Research Project Document template here.
Best of luck in your family history efforts! Go to the next step in the process: Research Like a Pro, Part 3: Where Did They Live?
¹ Thomas W. Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof, (Arlington: National Genealogical Society, 2013), 9.
Do you want to take your genealogy research to the next level? In our Research Like a Pro Study Group, you’ll complete assignments and peer reviews and receive feedback from professional genealogist Diana Elder AG®. Learn more…