Understanding Genealogy Sources: Why “Provenance” Matters

Before you rely on any genealogical sources for your family history research, you should know their provenance. Ask these questions about the records you find—and you’ll better understand the source and what it may (or may not) be telling you.

Provenance Genealogy

Genealogy Gems

In the art world, knowing the provenance of a piece is crucial to understanding its value. Provenance looks at an object’s origins, history, and ownership. These can shed light on whether the piece is authentic. In other words, it tells us whether it truly was created by the attributed artist in the stated timeframe. It also provides insight into the value of the item.

genealogical sources

Provenance defined

Genealogical sources: Why provenance matters

The principle of provenance is true for genealogical sources, too. Records created at the time of an event by eyewitnesses are generally much more credible. Documents created in places associated with your relatives, by people who knew them, are much more likely to pertain to them (rather than to other folks by the same name). The same holds true for objects that are passed down through the family. Therefore, whether you’re looking at a family Bible or a typescript of a reminiscence you find online, it’s important to learn as much as you can about it so you know how much to trust it.

Questions to ask about your genealogical sources

What type of document or item is it? When was it created?

The nature of an object or record can often tell you something about its history or credibility. In the case of a photograph, we might ask these questions:

  • What type of photograph is it? (tintype, carte de visite, Polaroid, etc.)
  • Is there printing or writing on the back of the photo?
  • If it’s a studio portrait, is the studio’s name and location identified?

For example, this photograph is a daguerreotype. It is a type of image taken on a silver-coated copper plate. Photo expert Maureen Taylor says these types of photos were in most use from 1839 to about 1865. You can learn additional clues from Maureen about using hairstyles, fashions, and other clues in the actual image in her book, Family Photo Detective.

lady_in_black_daguerreotype genealogical sources

Daguerreotype

Perhaps you have a manuscript in your grandma’s handwriting. Is it a diary or an autobiographical sketch? Is it dated or signed? Is it an original or a photocopy?

You will likely date these items, associate them with specific relatives, and judge the reliability of their contents based on answers to questions like these.

If a document isn’t identified, study it closely for clues as to what it is. Contributing Editor Sunny Morton has spent a lot of time studying old diaries and life story writings. Here are some tips from her on understanding them:

  • Diaries and journals were created gradually over time. You may see date headers before some entries and changes in the handwriting or ink. Entries often focus more on the present or immediate past than the deep past and they wouldn’t reveal future events because they hadn’t happened yet.
  • Autobiographical sketches or reminiscences may or may not be labeled and dated as such. These were usually written much later in someone’s life, often over a short period of time. The writer’s tone may be more formal, introspective, defensive, or self-conscious as she reflects on the past.

Look at all other documents and items that are associated with the source in question. For example, not long ago I received a box of old family items from my sister-in-law. The box originally belonged to my mother-in-law (Pat) and held an eclectic mix of mementos. One item of particular interest was a Guest Book sporting a cover made of wood. I immediately understood the significance of the cover because my father-in-law (Bill) had worked his entire career in the forest products industry. But that didn’t mean that the book actually belonged to my in-laws. Further examination was required.

genealogical sources

The Guest Log

Before removing the book from the box, I made note of what was tucked in around it. Perhaps all of these items were unrelated, or perhaps they had all come out of the same closet. Slow and careful examination is key identifying all the potential clues about the item.

It took several hours of reading through the various entries to determine that the Book was given to Pat and Bill as a gift by Pat’s parents. It contained many original signatures acquired over many years from a wide range of friends and family.

If you’re looking at digitized records online, read the description of the record collection. If you’re in an archive, read the finding aid or other collection description. (Genealogy Gems Premium subscribers can learn more about using finding aids in Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode #149.)

Records or artifacts may come with dates or timeframes associated with them. Sometimes there is no date or only a rough range of possibilities. You may have to rely on clues from several sources to date the item and match it up with your family history timeline. For example, this quilt was found in a suitcase in my Grandmother Pauline Moore’s closet after her death with this note pinned to it.

genealogical sources

The quilt made by my great grandmother

genealogical sources

The note that was pinned to the quilt.

She says in the note that it was made by her mother before her stroke, which occurred in the 1960s. Based on the flour sack fabrics, I would date it more in the range of 1925-1945. It’s possible that she may have hung on to all these scraps and made it later in life. But I know from past conversations with my grandmother that most of her mother’s quilting was done in the earlier timeframe. Adding strength to my theory is a dress that hangs in my laundry room. I inherited the dress from my grandmother years ago. I have photos of her wearing it in the pre-World War II era. It contains some of the exact same fabric that makes up the quilt.

My grandma’s 1940s house dresses.

Finally, with documents especially, consider whether you’re looking at the original version, meaning the first format it ever took. Whenever possible, consult the original. Indexes, typed-up copies, or abstracts are convenient reference tools. In some cases, they are the only versions you’ll be able to access. However, they may not be as complete or accurate. Handwritten copies of older originals may have been made in the days before photocopying technology.

Here’s a digital copy of a 4-page family history written by Sunny’s great-aunt Lena Hall (1903-1981). Sunny received this copy from her mother. The title “as told by” at the beginning hints that this is a typed version of an oral history. If an original audio taped version still exists, Sunny doesn’t have it. So in this case, this is the best version she can get.

genealogical sources

Document by Lena Hall

When was it written? A note at the end simply says the document was “copied by a niece” in 1987. It was created after 1950 because Aunt Lena names that as the year her father died. Aunt Lena states that her parents now had “25 grandchildren, 58 great-grandchildren, and 4 great-great-grandchildren.” Studying a complete family tree in descendancy view would likely reveal when her parents had only four great-great grandchildren—perhaps the best way to date this document.

If you can’t identify or assign a rough date to an artifact, consult a professional historian, genealogist, appraiser, or others with knowledge of particular documents or objects.

Where was it created and where has it been kept over the years?

Sometimes, family history sources are labeled with place names, like the city stamped on the front of an old photographic studio portrait. These can help you connect them with your family—or confirm that they don’t pertain to your family.

Where the source has been kept over time, and who has kept it, is an important part of provenance. For example, last summer, I was given this camera by my uncle.

camera and old film genealogical sources

He said it was originally owned by my grandma, Alfreda Louise Burkett. Much to our delight, we discovered that the camera had unexposed film inside! I scurried off to a few local stores, and quickly learned that the film pre-dated the current standard 35mm film, and they couldn’t process it. As I mentioned before, there are times when you will need to consult an expert, and this was one of them. Google led me to a specialty photography store about an hour from my home. It also served up this website which revealed that the camera type (Kodak Senior Six-20) was produced from 1932-1937.

The knowledgeable folks at the photography store connected me with a highly specialized film developer in Colorado. I’ve sent the film for processing. They told me the film type (C-22) can be dated to pre-1970s. This time frame makes sense: my grandma passed away in 1986.

As long as it has taken for this camera to make its way to me, I’m going to have to wait a little longer to see what the roll of film reveals. There is so little of this film still in existence that it can take up to 18 months for the developer to collect enough of it to warrant a processing run. When the happy day arrives that the photos appear in my mailbox, I’m optimistic that the images will further help me narrow down the timeframe between the 1930s and the 1970s when they were taken.

This chain of ownership—from my grandma to her son to me—is strong and reliable, based on my confidence in my uncle’s memory and honesty. This makes me more confident that the pictures inside that camera will be of my family. Stay tuned, because I will surely share the outcome here on the blog.

Why was it created?

The original purpose of a source is highly relevant to how much faith you put in its contents. For example, a woman might have altered her testimony in divorce proceedings in an effort to minimize damage to her own reputation and future. A man filling out his draft registration paperwork may have lied about his age or citizenship, either to avoid military service or in order to be included despite being under age. And most certainly newspaper articles may be filled with a variety of biases by the author, publisher, or those being interviewed. Give careful thought to these possible motivations when evaluating the contents of records.

Does it appear to be complete?

Whenever possible, consider a source as a whole. It’s tempting to want to zero in on the paragraphs or photos that interest you most, but you may miss out on important information that changes what this source has to tell you. The specific placement of a photo in an album can be as significant as the printed photographic image. A photo’s position can indicate the relationship of the people in the photo to others on the same page, or the timeline of events.

genealogical sources

Image: Genealogy Gems

Take note if any part of the source appears to be missing or illegible, especially if it appears that some of it has been deliberately removed, erased, or crossed out. You may be able to make more sense of the partial information—or take a guess at why it was removed—as you learn more about the family. (My grandma’s diaries from the 1930s gave me insight into this photo!)

There may be a perfectly innocent reason for the change. But you may also be seeing evidence that someone who wanted to erase unpleasant memories or conceal a scandal.

Who was the informant?

The informant in any record is the person who supplied the information. Sometimes this is the same person who created a record, such as the writer of a diary. In the case of a U.S. census, the informant is the person in a household who told the census enumerator about the people who lived there. In most cases, it’s impossible to know who the informant was. Thankfully in 1940, census enumerators were instructed to mark the informant with a circled “X,” as shown in these two households.

genealogical sources

Remember that a source may have multiple informants, who would have been in the best position to provide certain kinds of information. Below is the death certificate for Mary Mollie Overbay, beloved grandma and hero of Genealogy Gems contributing writer Margaret Linford. (Read more about her here.) In this death certificate, Informant #1 reported the deceased’s personal information, and would typically have been a close relative. Informant #2 provided the medical particulars relating to the death, and would typically have been the attending physician.

genealogical sources

Death Record Informants

 

What primary and secondary information is revealed in this record?

Historical evidence can either be considered primary or secondary information. Genealogical scholar Thomas W. Jones defines these terms in his book, Mastering Genealogical Proof:

  • Primary information is that reported by an eyewitness. Primary information often was recorded soon after the event, but it may be reported or recorded years or decades later.
  • Secondary information is reported by someone who obtained it from someone else. It is hearsay.”

The same document can include both primary and secondary information (which is why we now talk less about primary and secondary sources and more about information). On the death certificate above, Informant #1 shares the deceased’s last name, so was likely a relative. He likely had first-hand knowledge of the deceased’s marital status, spouse’s name, and occupation. If Informant #1 was the deceased’s father, he would also likely have provided primary information relating to the deceased’s birth, place of residence, and parents’ names. Secondary information he reported would include his own birthplace (as father) and that of his wife (since he presumably wasn’t present for it). If Informant #2 was the deceased’s attending physician, he would have provided primary information about the deceased’s immediate and contributing causes of death.

How do all these clues add up?

It’s clear that as genealogists our goal is not only to evaluate each family history source, but also each piece of information it provides. We need to scrutinize it from many angles and make some judgments. Asking the right questions helps us ultimately answer the all-important question: how much do you trust what this record is telling you?

Next steps: Keep learning

Is there more to do after you review a family history artifact or record and extract every piece of information from it? You bet! Create a research plan that will help you find other records to verify or shed additional light on the information in the document. For example:

  • If you’ve got a death certificate, look for other death-related records, such as an obituary, tombstone inscription, and funeral home records.
  • Follow up on additional leads provided in the source. A death certificate sometimes mentions a Social Security number or military service, both of which have their own paper trails.

If you’re new to research plans or looking for a way to take them paperless, you’ll find detailed answers in my video class “Using Evernote to Create a Research Plan.” The video and handout download are available to Genealogy Gems Premium Members.

Evernote for genealogy genealogical sources

Genealogy Gems Premium Video Class

DNA Testing for Kids Sparks Interest in Family History

DNA testing for kids is a great way to spark their interest in their heritage, while teaching science, math, geography, and more. Consider these reasons and start with the budget-friendly option of an autosomal test.

DNA testing for kids

According to a 2010 study out of Emory University, if we want to encourage kids toward an activity that will positively impact them, we should steer them toward family history. The researchers reported, “Children who know stories about relatives who came before them show higher levels of emotional well-being.”

Now, I know I don’t need to convince you of this. You are already sold on genealogy. But let’s explore how DNA testing might be able to help you share your love of family history with your children and grandchildren.

Why Try DNA Testing for Kids

Since you know this is me, the genetic genealogist talking, you can probably guess what I’ll suggest for getting kids interested in family history. DNA testing is a great way to personally and physically involve them. There is the tangible process of taking the sample at home, and the marvel at how such a simple act can produce the amazing display of our ethnicity results. Since each of us is unique, it will be fun for them to compare with you and other relatives to see who-got-what-from-who. This will naturally lead to questions about which ancestor provided that bit of Italian or Irish, and wham! You’ll be right there to tell them about how their 5th great-grandfather crossed the ocean with only the clothes on his back, determined to make a new start in a new land.

Kit for DNA testing for kids

If there are parts of the ethnicity report you can’t explain, use that as a hook to encourage them to start digging and to find out why you have that smattering of eastern European or Southeast Asian. Taking them for a tour of the DNA match page, you can show them how they share 50% of their DNA with their sister (whether they like it or not!) and how they share 25% with their grandparent!

DNA test results give kids a totally unique look at their personal identity with technology that is cutting edge. Looking at their DNA test results can turn into a math lesson, a science lesson, a geography lesson, a lesson on heredity or biology, or a discussion on identity. DNA is the perfect introduction to the wonders that genealogy can hold, especially for children.

A Warning and Caution

As with all DNA testing pursuits, this one should not be taken lightly, even with all of its benefits.

An important word to parents: Be sure to keep unintentional consequences in the forefront of your mind. This includes the possibility of revealing family secrets. Talk with your spouse and make sure you are both on the same page. In the end, this is your decision.

An important word to grandparents and other relatives: DNA testing is a parent’s decision. Even though you’re passionate about preserving the family’s history and the benefits of including children are numerous, you must obtain parental consent if you are not the parent.

More About Autosomal DNA Testing for Kids

Click here to learn more about my series of how-to videos (available to Gems fans for a special price) or start your kids’ or grandkids’ DNA journey with two of my genetic genealogy quick guides. The first is a great overview and the second talks about autosomal testing which is a good test for genetic genealogy beginners.

The Gift of Family History Video

Are you having a hard time coming up with the perfect gift for someone special on your list? The gift of video gives all year round, and doesn’t require you to buy the correct size. Make your video about family history, or the memories of the recipient, and get ready for hugs and smiles of appreciation for your thoughtfulness.

Do you remember the first Christmas that you realized it was better to give than to receive?  It’s an amazing feeling when your heart swells at the thought of snagging the perfect present for the people you love the most. But if you’re like me, there are always one or two relatives who present daunting challenges. Perhaps it’s the elder members of your tribe who seem to want for nothing; or a Aunt who quietly returns everything.

video gift

My challenge this year is my Dad. He seems to want for nothing, and having an Amazon Wish List isn’t even on his radar. Last year Dad passed his high school scrapbook on to me. It’s brimming with some of his fondest memories: his Boy Scout membership card, newspaper clippings of his football prowess, and the cardboard glasses he wore to his very first 3D movie. I’m pretty sure his heart was swelling when he handed this treasure chest of beloved memories to his daughter, the family historian.

And that’s when I was struck with an inspiration: give it back to him in the form of a video.

Video: Gift Perfection

Here’s why video makes a perfect gift:

  • It doesn’t take up precious space on the shelf
  • It can be enjoyed from any computing or mobile device again and again
  • It can be shared easily with others

If you have been in search of the perfect holiday gift, follow along with me, and give the gift of video.

Creating a Video Gift

If you’re short on time, consider making a video of an old family scrapbook. All you will need  is a smartphone and 30-60 minutes.  Pull a scrapbook off the shelf, and dust it off because it’s about to get a new life!

Step 1 – Photograph the album

You could use a flatbed scanner to scan each page and the individual items you want to highlight. But you can save a ton of time by putting your smartphone or tablet to use. For me, this was the  ideal solution also because so many of the items in the scrapbook had become loose, and I wanted to be able to show the pages as they were originally laid out. By setting the book on a table I could just snap photos rather than turning it upside down on the scanner glass. And don’t worry about snapping the perfect pics because we’ll get them all snazzy in step 3.

Save the images to a free cloud service like Dropbox so that you can easily retrieve them on your home computer.

Step 2 – Head to Animoto.com

(Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on my links. I appreciate you using these links because that compensation helps make the Genealogy Gems blog possible. Thank you!)

Although Animoto does have an mobile app, I like using the web version on my computer which provides the advantage of a bigger screen. Click here to go to Animoto, and sign in to your account.  Then, just click the Create button to start a new video project.

Choose a Video Style, which will include a music soundtrack. If the music isn’t quite what you had in mind, click Change Song and pick from a robust list of tunes. Animoto’s secret sauce optimizes and paces your slides to jive with the music. If the music is faster, the slides are faster, and if it’s slower, yep, the slides are slower. In the end though, you always have the final choice in the pacing of your slides and your entire video. Need a little extra time? Then just add a second music sound track.

Step 3 – Add Your Photos

Now it’s time to add your photos. Click Add Image, select Dropbox, and navigate your way to the folder where you saved your photos. Click the first one in the list, and then holding down the Shift key on your keyboard, click the last photo in the list, and click the Choose button. There you go: you’ve added all your images in one fell swoop! Imagine the time you saved over adding one item at a time.

I snapped all the full page photos first, and then I went back and snapped some of particular items I wanted to highlight with closeup images. That meant that when I added my photos they weren’t in exactly the right order. Thankfully, all I had to do was drag and drop them in the desired order. Easy peasy!

video gift dashboard

animoto-edit-video-gift

Edit your photos within Animoto.

Another reason I adore using Animoto is that I can do all my editing right there in the dashboard. With a few clicks you can apply a quick crop, slight rotation, and image enhancement with a great result. (Image right)

You even have the option to add video clips with Animoto. So if I had a fancy to add my original video of turning the pages of the scrapbook (above) I would just drag and drop it onto the timeline. And  it is that ability to drag images and video from your hard drive straight into Animoto that makes it so quick and easy to use.

Step 4 – Add Title Slides

Although my Dad’s scrapbook really speaks for itself, I decided to add a few title cards to help guide the viewer like:

  • The Picture Show
  • School Work
  • Sports
  • Graduation

And title cards are great for “The End” and any other message or credits you want to add.

If you want to add text within your project, click to select the item that your text will follow, then click Add Text from the menu, and it will appear immediately after the previous item. To add text at the end, just click the plus sign in the last box and again type your text. And remember, nothing is set in stone. If you change your mind you can drag the text to a new location, edit it, or delete it all together.

Step  5 – Preview & Publish Your Video

At any time during the process you can click the Preview Video button to see your work. If you like what you see, then click the Produce button in the Preview window to create the final product. And speaking of final products, here’s mine:

Learn More

Are you ready to start creating memorable videos for the loved ones on your list? Click here to learn even more and give Animoto a whirl. (And just think: no wrapping required. You’re welcome!)

Unclaimed Persons Project Offers Opportunity to Apply Your Genealogy Skills

When the recent press release from  the Unclaimed Persons project crossed my desk, it jumped out at me in a very personal way. I majored in Forensic Anthropology (the study of human remains) in college, and was no stranger to coroner’s offices. I’ve witnessed first-hand what happens when a decedent enters a morgue, and it’s a very cold (literally!) and lonely experience. My passion for forensics stemmed from a desire to ensure that families wouldn’t be left wondering what happened to their loved ones. The Unclaimed Persons project focuses on the other side of that mission: ensuring that the loved one is reunited with their family and laid to rest with dignity.

Unclaimed Persons Project - image By P.J.L Laurens (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

From an Unclaimed Persons project press release:

Alone in death and tucked away on dark shelves or cold gurneys in morgues across the country, thousands of deceased individuals whose names are known to coroners, medical examiners, and a handful of friends have no known family members to claim their remains. Homelessness, mental illness, long-term estrangement, deaths of all apparent next of kin, and other circumstances have severed familial connections. Ever-increasing caseloads and shrinking budgets make it nearly impossible for medical examiners, coroners, and investigators who cannot quickly identify family to find deceased individuals’ relatives without help.

Unclaimed Persons project uses genealogy skills

Many people are aware that it can be a real challenge when a coroner obtains a John or Jane Doe, an unidentified person. It presents the difficult task of identifying the person. But few people know that in fact the even bigger problem consuming morgues today is unclaimed persons, rather than unidentified ones: individuals who have passed but with no trace of living relatives to come and claim them. Thus, the Unclaimed Persons project was born! In 2008, genealogy author, speaker, consultant, and on-air expert Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak started this organization online. She shares how she got started working with these cases in this video:

“My first time that I worked with a coroner’s office was actually sort of an accident. I was just reading the newspaper and I tripped across this article about the situation of these people who are essentially unclaimed people, people whose next-of-kin just can’t be found. And I was reading about a couple of the actual examples they gave, and one of them made a fleeting reference to a particular case where they actually had the fellow’s family bible. And that’s what made the connection for me that ‘Aha! Maybe I can use the genealogical sleuthing skills to find these families as well.” -Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

After assisting two coroners with unclaimed persons cases, Megan founded a Facebook group with the goal of solving even more unclaimed persons cases. The online community of volunteer researchers joined forces with medical examiners, forensic investigators, and coroners to help reunite families and bring closure so that the dead can finally be laid to rest.

Unclaimed Persons is now celebrating their 9th anniversary with the launch of their new website, and to date have solved 471 cases with a 70% solve rate! But the unclaimed epidemic in morgues persists, and Unclaimed Persons is always recruiting more volunteers. As it turns out, family history enthusiasts make some of the best detectives in these cases! Genealogists combine classic sleuthing skills with their knowledge of family record keeping to track down even the most elusive relatives. This is a wonderful opportunity for genealogists to use their specialized training for an even greater good.

unclaimed persons project statistics

500+ veterans escorted the unclaimed remains of seven Iowa veterans to their final resting place at the Iowa Veterans Cemetery, Van Meter, Iowa, in 2009. U.S. Navy photo by Senior Chief Petty Officer Gary Ward 

How you can help the Unclaimed Person project

You don’t have to be a seasoned genealogist to be a volunteer! Anyone with an interest is welcome to join. Visit https://unclaimed-persons.org/ to register as a member. You will need to complete a member profile with your basic information, and agree to Unclaimed Persons Forum Rules. Unclaimed Persons encourages researchers to have access to tools such as Ancestry.com, GenealogyBank.com, historical newspaper archives, and other online subscriptions related to genealogical research. However, there are many publicly available online databases that can also help with your research.

As an Unclaimed Persons volunteer, one of the most important things to know and adhere to is that researchers should not contact identified family members, nor should they contact coroners directly. Each case is assigned a case manager, and all discoveries should be sent directly to them. This may seem like an unnecessary step, but in fact it ensures that coroners, medical examiners, and investigators are not inundated or hindered with duplicate information and can continue to manage their daily workloads.

And Unclaimed Persons feels very strongly that contacting even one family in error would jeopardize the high standards and reputation of the organization. While the ultimate goal is bring closure for family members, the primary focus of Unclaimed Persons is to assist these agencies with the difficult task of locating them, rather than to be the ones delivering the news directly. But for your own sense of closure, Unclaimed Persons will announce on their Facebook group page and their online forum when a case has been solved so you and the other volunteers can celebrate together!

like buttonIf you don’t have time or resources to help with research, you can still help Unclaimed Persons by ‘Liking’ their Facebook page and sharing the cases among the genealogy community. You can also follow Unclaimed Persons on social media for announcements of new cases where you may have information or experience that can help (specific locations, surnames, etc.).

Click here to learn more about how to become a volunteer member.

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