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

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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

New AncestryDNA Common Matches Tool: Love It!

A new tool at Ancestry DNA is blowing my genealogy mysteries wide open!

AncestryDNA common matches tool

I have been up since 5:30 with plenty of goals and ambitions for today. But I got distracted. Distracted by a new tool at AncestryDNA that is blowing my genealogy mysteries wide open.

The new tool AncestryDNA Common Matches tool is hiding between the “Pedigrees and Surnames” filter and the “Map and Locations” filter on your matches’ main match page. The Common Matches tool pulls out the shared 4th cousin or higher matches between two people.

Let’s take a look at how this might work for you.

2015 8 ICWDeniseLet’s say you have a second cousin, Denise, that you have already identified in the Ancestry database and you know your common ancestral couple is Joseph and Louise Mitchell.  You want to gather others who share DNA with both you and Denise. Those individuals then have a high likelihood of being related to Joseph and Louise in some way.

So we click on the “Shared Matches” button on Denise’s page and find that Mike, Spencer, and Wendy all have DNA in common with you and Denise.  After reviewing pedigree charts, you are able to determine that Mike is related through Louise’s sister and Wendy is related through Joseph’s brother.  Note that Wendy’s actual relationship to you is not 4th cousin, as it is shown, but she is actually your 3rd cousin once removed. Remember that the relationship given is not always the exact relationship of two people who have been tested.

2015 8 ICWSpencerBut what about Spencer? Spencer, unfortunately has not yet linked his family tree to his Ancestry account or answered any of your queries about his family tree. I am sure he has just been busy. Or he doesn’t know his family tree. Or his computer was captured by aliens or smashed by his two-year-old grandson just as he was about to click “send” and reveal how the two of you were connected. Whatever the case may be, up until this point you haven’t heard a peep from Spencer and therefore had absolutely no way to figure out how Spencer was related to you.

But now you know that he is somehow associated with the Joseph and Louise Mitchell family because he came up as In Common With (ICW) you and Denise.

We can take this one step further and ask Ancestry to show us who has DNA ICW you and Spencer.  You can see here that while Mike still remains, Wendy has dropped off the list.  Now there are two possible explanations for this: The first is that Spencer is related through Louise’s parents, John and Sarah, and that is why he is not sharing DNA with Wendy.

The other, less likely, possibility is that Spencer is related through Joseph’s parents Louis and Mary, but doesn’t share enough DNA with Wendy to be detected on this test.

While this information is helpful, it still hasn’t completely solved the case. The first thing you should do with your new-found knowledge is start sending more pointed questions to your matches. Here is an example message you might send to Spencer:

“Dear Spencer,

I was just playing around with the new AncestryDNA Common Matches tool and I see that you are related to a few of my other matches that connect through Joseph and Louise Mitchell.  Louise’s parents, John and Sarah Marsh, were both born in Mississippi in the 1840’s and Joseph’s parents Joseph and Mary Mitchell, were born in Tennessee in 1856 and 1863 respectively.

Do any of these names or places sound familiar to you?

I am looking forward to working with you on this connection.

Your DNA Cousin, Diahan”

Assuming this garners a response, you can then work together to find your connection. If his budget is not allowing for a new computer at this time and you never hear from Spencer, the key to figuring out how he is related to you may be in the new match, Beth, who is ICW you and Spencer. If you can figure out how Beth is related to you, you will know Spencer is related in a similar way.

AncestryDNA and FamilyTreeDNA quick guide setIf you’ve decided you would like to get in the DNA game, start with Ancestry DNA: Genetic Testing – DNA Test, and then head over to AncestryDNA and start growing your genetic family tree!

For a little more guidance, I suggest you purchase my laminated quick guides, “Understanding AncestryDNA and “Understanding Family Tree DNA.” These are also available as a part of a complete bundle of DNA guides specifically designed to help you navigate your results at the leading genetic genealogy testing companies. Click here to see all our DNA quick guides. 

 

We Dig These Gems! New Genealogy Records Online

We dig these gemsHere’s our weekly list of new genealogy records online. Do any collections below relate to your family history? Please share with your genealogy buddies or with societies that might be interested!

AUSTRALIA WWI WOMEN. New media resources, including a television series, Facebook page and Twitter feed have been created to share more information about Australians and New Zealanders who participated in World War I, particularly women. Click here for a related blog post from The National Archives (Australia).

COLOMBIA CHURCH RECORDS. More than a million browsable records have been added to an existing database at FamilySearch, Colombia Catholic Church Records 1600-2012. “These records include: baptisms, confirmations, marriages, pre-marriage investigations, marriage dispensations, deaths, and indexes.” Some of the collection is already indexed.

ENGLAND ELECTORAL REGISTERS. Electoral registers for Manchester, England (1832-1900) are now browsable on Findmypast. Details about an ancestor’s residence and property ownership may appear.

NEW JERSEY STATE CENSUS. FamilySearch just added more than 2.7 million records from the 1915 New Jersey Census  to its free online collections. These records include “the names of each member of the household, location, gender, birth date (month and year) and birthplace.” Click here learn more about this and other state censuses.

TEXAS MARRIAGE RECORDS. More than half a million indexed records have been added to an existing free database, Texas County Marriage Records 1837-1977, at FamilySearch. Covering 140 years, the records include “various types of marriage records (registers, licenses, intentions to marry, etc.) from 183 of the 254 counties in Texas.”

share notes with evernoteThank you for sharing these new genealogy records online with your genealogy friends and fellow society members via email and your favorite social media channels. Just use the Share buttons on this page!

 

Genealogy Gems is Now Mobile-Friendly! Here are the Highlights

Genealogy Gems mobile friendly websiteThe Genealogy Gems website is now mobile-friendly. Your go-to family history resource just got a whole lot easier to read on-the-go!

Here at Genealogy Gems we are working hard every day to create a compelling resource for genealogy inspiration, tips, tech tools and news you can use RIGHT NOW. That’s why we are pleased as punch to let you know that our new mobile-friendly site design makes it easier to soak up all the ideas on our pages regardless of the size of your device’s screen.

Here are some of our website highlights that are especially mobile-friendly:

  • The free Genealogy Gems podcast (with over 1.75 million downloads) has been entertaining and educating family history lovers around the world for almost 10 years. Back in the “old” days (circa 2007) the only way to get your hands on a podcast (recorded “radio” show) was to download iTunes, subscribe to the podcast, and listen through your computer speakers. If you were lucky enough to have an iPod you could plug it in and figure out how to transfer the audio files so you could listen untethered from your computer. Today, smartphones make it oh-so-easy to take us with you when commuting, exercising, gardening and more. You can subscribe to the free show through the Podcasts app (iOS) or better yet download the Genealogy Gems app (in the iTunes Store and for Android) and you’ll also get access to great bonus content.
  • Our daily blog keeps readers up to date on new genealogy record collections, industry news, the genetic genealogy industry and technology tools. We boost your research skills, take you to must-see news articles and more. Mobile readers can get their daily dose of genealogy gems from our website or by following our Facebook page (See us First on Facebook to stay current on our posts). Our convenient category search (you’ll find it in the upper left corner of our home page) makes it easy to target posts on your favorite topics.
  • The free Family History Made Easy podcast teaches listeners step-by-step, episode by episode, how to start their genealogy research off right–and keep it going. Refresh your skills with the entire series or catch individual episodes for a targeted brush-up.
  • Premium Members-Only videos and podcast. Genealogy Gems Premium members can access over 2 dozen instructional videos on Lisa’s most popular topics (the same standing-room-only content Lisa delivers at top conferences). The premium podcast delivers more of Lisa’s signature brand of warm conversation, expert interviews, how-tos and more. Click here to learn more about Premium membership and take the best of Lisa Louise Cooke along wherever you go.

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Mobile-Friendly Search Results Come to Google

Compare Look-Alikes in Your Family with this Web App

Ancestry App for Apple Watch

 

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