Source Citations: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Have you ever read a family history with an interesting fact, like “Great Grandma was a full blooded Cherokee”? You’re excited to read more and see some proof, but there is nothing: no source citations or documentation of any kind. You’re left in the dark, wondering how much to believe in that history.
My great grandmother, Eliza Ann Isenhour, supposedly had Cherokee heritage. Unfortunately, the family history stating this fact neglected to state any proof. Nicole and I researched Eliza’s parents, found that she actually belonged to the Eisenhour clan, and through that connection discovered our relationship to President Dwight D. Eisenhour.
Just last month, I stumbled upon evidence that proved her second husband, Jacob Meek, was one quarter Cherokee (see record at the end of this post). Somewhere along the way, this fact probably morphed into Great Grandma being a full blood Cherokee. Mystery solved! Now I can fully document that information and lay the story to rest. What will I use for documentation? Information gleaned from sources. And when I put this information into FamilySearch, Ancestry, and my personal database, I’ll use source citations!
To read more about the genealogy research process, including documentation and crafting source citations, check out my book, Research Like a Pro: A Genealogist’s Guide. Chapter 5 is devoted to citations and Appendix A: Templates has common citation templates.
About Source Citations
Source citations can be:
Good – clearly stating the source and where to access it
Bad – completely lacking in useful details
Ugly – decent information, but really long and involved
Non-existent – as in the case of Great Grandma’s Cherokee heritage
Citations and documentation – sounds scary, doesn’t it? I’m in the midst of writing my Four Generation Research Report that has to include accurate and complete citations. Knowing the report will be subject to approval as part of the Accreditation process only makes me more determined to do it right, but so many rules and scenarios can be overwhelming. How do I write a good citation and avoid the bad and ugly ones?
Luckily I attended Tom Jones’ class at RootsTech 2016 titled “Documentation: The What, Why, Where, and How”. About five minutes into the lecture, my anxiety melted away. Why? Because he stated:
“The only rule that can’t be broken is to be clear.”
With this caveat, I actively tuned in and learned simple principles to use with any documentation scenario.
First of all, you might ask: “Why would I need to learn about creating source citations? I just add record hints from FamilySearch, Ancestry, or My Heritage and the citation is automatically created.”
Good point. Our modern technology makes it easy to add source documentation for those digitized, indexed records, but what about the family bible pages you own or the local history book on your shelf? What if you find a record on one of the numerous state websites and you want to add it to your family tree on Ancestry, FamilySearch, or your personal database? You’ll need to create your own source. Even the ready made citations on the major websites like Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org might need to be tweaked to meet your specific needs.
If you want your research to be taken seriously, you must back it up with accurate documentation. Elizabeth Shown Mills’, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace is the definitive source, but can be daunting to the newbie. I’ll give you several references for more in depth study at the end of this post. In a nutshell, here is what I learned from Tom Jones at RootsTech.
First, you need to understand the source. How many times have you found information online by googling your ancestor’s name, but you’re not entirely sure what you’ve found?
For example, I’m researching Arthur Dillard, born 1815 in South Carolina. In searching Florida land records I came across this cool record showing that he received a land grant in 1843.
Along with the image, below is the information the website provided.
Where is my neat and tidy citation??? Looks like I’ll need to create my own.
This website is not super easy to understand, so I clicked on the FAQ and started learning about the source. This helped me formulate a clear citation – the only rule that can’t be broken. My citation also needs to lead others to the document easily.
I learned from Mills and Jones that citations need to answer 5 questions. Using these principles, I created my own citation.
1)Who? This refers to either the author of the source, the creator (often a religious or government entity), or the informant.
The land permit for Arthur Dillard didn’t give me a clue as to who created this record, but under the FAQ on the website, I discovered it was the Florida Department of Environmental Protection that collected the data and images.
2) What? The title of the source comes next. Easy to find at the top of the record: Armed Occupation Act of 1842 Florida Land Permits
3) When? Typically you cite the year a book or microfilm was published; if it is a journal or magazine, add the month or season. For a website, add the access date. If the source is unpublished, you can use the date it was created or the date of the event it reports. Because I accessed this source on the web, I used the access date of 9 February 2016.
4) Where within the source? This could be a page number, an image number, or any other way to explain to others how to find the source again. Not sure how the website organizes the information, I included all the locator information at the top of the web page:
DM ID: 148527 Doc. Date: 07/26/1843 Legacy Doc. Locator: AOP3815
5) Where in the world is the source? This could be the publisher’s city and state, the URL, or the place you’d go to view it if unpublished. An easy one here – I just copied and pasted the URL of the website: http://tlhdslweb.dep.state.fl.us
My finished citation looks like this:
Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Armed Occupation Act of 1842 Florida Land Permits, online database accessed 9 February 2016, DM ID: 148527, Doc. Date: 07/26/1843, Legacy Doc. Locator: AOP3815, http://tlhdslweb.dep.state.fl.us.
This citation looks fairly good, not bad, and just a little ugly. I don’t really love the way the locator info from the website looks, but it is important in locating the source so I left it.
The five questions seem pretty straightforward, but things can get a little fuzzy when you’re citing a published source that is now on one of the popular websites like Ancestry.com. What is the protocol? Do you include the website url? Just the original source info?
This is a common dilemma, so I was glad to hear Tom Jones explain Elizabeth Shown Mills’ velcro principle: “things that belong together, stay together; make it all one citation, dividing the parts with a semi colon. Whatever makes most sense is correct. Physical and digital files stick together.”
All the physical source citation info; Digital source citation info.
For example, check out this image of a marriage record for Arthur Dillard:
Ancestry gave me this source information:
Ancestry.com. Georgia, Marriage Records From Select Counties, 1828-1978 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2013.
Original data: County Marriage Records, 1828–1978. The Georgia Archives, Morrow, Georgia.
Which citation do I use? What about the header information at the top of the image webpage above? Do I include it? This can be confusing!!!
Using the velcro principle, I created a citation using both the original data and the Ancestry database information. Remember, the most important rule is to be clear!
Again, I answered Who, What? When? Where? Where? for both the original data and ancestry database info. The first answer is for the original data, the second answer is for the published data on Ancestry.com.
1) Who created the record? The Georgia Archives / Ancestry.com
2) What is the title? County Marriage Records, 1828-1978 / Georgia, Marriage Records From Select Counties, 1828-1978 [database on-line]
3) When was it published or when did the event occur? Georgia Archives doesn’t have a date for it’s publication, so I’ll use the date of the record,1837 / 2013 (Ancestry publication)
4) Where is the item of interest? Jones County Marriages, Book B, 1821-1936 / image 173 (Ancestry image #)
5)Where in the world is the source? Morrow, Georgia / Provo, Utah
Here is my finished citation:
The Georgia Archives, County Marriage Records, 1828–1978, 1837, Jones County Marriages, Book B, 1821-1936, Morrow, Georgia; Ancestry.com, Georgia, Marriage Records From Select Counties, 1828-1978 [database on-line], image 173, Provo, Utah.
List the original source information first, semicolon, then list the online database information second.
The real test comes in clarity. Could someone find this marriage record again easily? Does it provide enough information to be used as proof? I like the look of this citation. It’s definitely not bad or ugly. I’ll rate it good!
Armed with the five question approach, I’m ready to challenge any source with:
So back to my supposedly full blooded Cherokee great grandmother. Look who I found on Ancestry.com!
Jacob Meek, my great grandmother’s second husband, and their two children, James H. and Calvin W. Meek.
In this Native American Enrollment Card for the Five Civilized Tribes, Jacob is listed as 1/4 Native American and his sons are listed as 1/8. They didn’t get any Native American blood from their mother, Eliza Ann Isenhour. Finally – proof that the family history got it wrong! With this citation, anyone can quickly find the record again:
Ancestry.com, U.S., Native American Enrollment Cards for the Five Civilized Tribes, 1898-1914 (online database), accessed 10 February 2016, image 572, Provo, UT, USA.
Best of luck in finding and citing those sources and may all your citations be beautiful!
Follow my accreditation journey! Here are all my accreditation posts so far.
Further helps on citations and documentation:
These are affiliate links. If you click the link and make a purchase, we receive a small commission. It does not change the price of the item. Thanks!
For a complete overview on the Who, What, When, Where, Where elements of citations, see “GPS ELement 2: Source Citations” (chapter 4) of Mastering Genealogical Proof by Tom Jones
Elizabeth Shown Mills’ website: Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation & Source Usage contains lots of helps with analyzing evidence, citations, and using sources. Her printed books include:
- Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, Third Edition
- Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian
“Reference Notes” by Kyle Hurst, part of The Portable Genealogist series is a four page laminated guide with basic guidelines and sample citations. Available through American Ancestors, NEHGS, I picked this up at RootsTech and it has proven to be quite helpful.