Up to this point, your pursuit of family history has been a gathering process. You have searched your own memory and home, as well as the same sources for other members of your family. Now you will move past the gathering phase and into the processing and verification stage. With each piece of data you have collected, you need to determine how you can verify the accuracy of that data before it is used to draw conclusions about your ancestral heritage. This is especially true when you have two or more sources of conflicting information for the same event. In this case, you must weigh the evidence and make the determination that you think is most likely for your family.
A source document is any ‘first generation’ record of an event pertaining to your family history. In this case, generation doesn’t refer to your ancestors, but instead describes how close to the occurrence of the event was to the official record of that event. An original birth certificate, for example, filed just days after the birth of an ancestor, is considered a first-generation record of that event. If an alphabetized ledger was created at the end of the calendar year based on all certificates filed during the year, this would be a second-generation recording of that information. Taking this example one step further, a municipality may have hired an outside agency to convert their birth ledgers into an electronic database. While this database can be searched much more quickly, it is a third-generation record of the original event and is likely to contain errors and ommissions which may distort the historical events.
Whenever possible, you should seek to inspect the original record of an event, made as close as possible to the occurrence of that event. This does not mean that errors did not occur at the time an event was being recorded, but you can use several sources to cross-reference conflicting facts.
An obituary, for example, is a very helpful source, but should not be confused with being a source document. You should use both the obituary and the death certificate to draw more meaningful conclusions about this event. Burial records, funeral home receipts, and other documents may all be needed to ascertain the connection that your family has to a particular individual.
When evaluating any source document, look for details that may tell you how the record was made. If the records are handwritten, do all entries appear in the same hand and ink? This may suggest a secondary copy from an original source. If ledger entries vary in style of handwriting and ink, then it is more likely that individual records were made as the events occurred.
by Daniel M. Lynch for the Connecticut Society of Genealogists, Inc.