5 Things to Ask About Genealogy Information

Just because something is written down doesn't mean that it's right. We need to evaluate the information that we're looking at. Here are 5 questions you should ask when you're evaluating genealogy information.

5 Things to Ask About Genealogy Information


First: Sources or Information?

Let's start with a quick definition. Information is what a source says. A source is what you use to get information. You might think of it as the source is a vessel or a container for information. (You might want to read my post "Understanding Genealogy Sources" to see what sources are all about.)

Now let's get to the questions.

1. Do You Understand the Terms?

Do you really understand what that source is saying? Do you understand the words and phrases that are being used and do you understand how they are being used? For example, in a legal document, assuming that "infant" refers to a baby could lead you to some incorrect conclusions. "Infant" in a legal document often just means that that person wasn't yet legally an adult; for legal purposes, they were still an infant.

2. Are You Reading What's There?

Building a theory is a natural part of research. The problem is when we allow that theory to take over. Facts should build our theory; our theory shouldn't color how we interpret the facts. 

Probably the most common example is assuming that children listed in a pre-1880 census are the children of the head of household (presuming the ages allow for that). The problem is that the pre-1880 federal censuses don't give relationships. They show who's living in the household, but it doesn't spell out how (or even if) they are related.

3. Who Gave the Information?

You've probably noticed that just because someone says something, it doesn't mean that they're right. It was true back in our ancestors' time, too. Knowing who gave the information can go a long way toward helping us evaluate its accuracy. 

Did that person know what he or she was talking about? Could they have been an eyewitness or have first-hand knowledge of the event? Or were they passing along information they got second- or third-hand? 

4. Is There a Reason to Lie?

We don't like to think of our ancestors as lying, but hey, they were human. Let's say that a veteran's widow needed to have been married for a certain length of time to be eligible for a military pension. If she missed it by a few months, might she fudge her marriage date a bit? Could a boy have lied about his age in order to get into the army (or a man lie about his age in order to avoid going into the army)?

5. Why Was the Record Created?

This is perhaps the most overlooked question, but it can have an impact on what we're evaluating. People tend to be more careful about the "important" information on a document. Think about those hotel or airline surveys you get after you travel. If you fill them out, you're probably more conscientious about being accurate in your rating of the hotel wifi than you were answering exactly how many times you've stayed with that brand hotel in the past 12 months. ("Was it 3 or was it 4? Doesn't matter. I'll put 3.") 

The "must have" bits of information tend to be more carefully reported than the "nice to have" bits of information. 

Are you trying to make sense of sources, evaluate evidence, and find more information? Check out my membership called "Generations Cafe Circle," designed to help you navigate your genealogy research with confidence and not be overwhelmedClick here for more information.

5 Things to Ask About Genealogy Information
Posted: May 3, 2018.

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  • Very helpful post! Given the potential information pitfalls you describe, I’ve taken to trying to verify new information I find with another source.

  • Well, all my life my MOTHER told me that I was 10 pounds at birth, and she punctuated this by telling me that the doctor called me a FAT PIG. I have a witness: my sister remembers her telling me this also. Going through some papers and photos almost a decade after mom’s death, I discovered that MY MOTHER was the 10 pound baby. I was just a little over 8 pounds. My source was The Best, but she had her facts confused. I’ve been unwittingly lying about my birth weight my whole life!!

  • Thank you for all your postings. I have found a number of errors in some of my family records and have notified the sources of the errors. One census report showed a cousin’s name as the wife. The wife may have been away from the house at the time the census was taken, but the cousin was visiting from Alabama. On another the transcription of the person’s first name was Eunice, when in fact the name was the same as my name, which is not a common name.

    • It’s definitely a tricky thing with the census. Except for 1940, we don’t know who gave the information, which makes it tough to evaluate sometimes.

        • And my Aunt Ruth was born in May…so the 1925 census gives her name as….May. When she went to get a passport years ago, she had to prove her birth name!

  • Definitely the case. My grandmother told me her grandfather was Danish. Going through records and what do I find but birth records here in Australia for those people. So they weren’t born in Denmark at all!

    In another case, my grandfather told my grandmother that his own grandfather was Irish. That person’s marriage record says he was Scottish. His daughter completed the death record saying he was English. I’m
    Unable to find records that prove or disprove any of those assertions. :/

  • My great uncle filled out the information on his father’s death certificate.For the question that asked “name of father” & “name of mother” he put down his own parents names. I think he was distraught and didn’t read the sidebar that said “of deceased”. His mother, on the other hand was born in 1847 (I have her birth cert.) and lied on every record I have on her.I think she did it because she was a few years older than her husband.

    • I have a great-great-uncle who did that on my ancestor’s death certificate. He didn’t fill it out completely the first time. They added a note “complete this section” — and then he filled in “parents’ names” with his own parents’ names. As Homer Simpson would say, “Doh!”

  • My Dad lied about his age by almost a year in order to go into the Navy at the beginning of WWI.

  • I’ve seen many examples of all these points. When I talk with people about evaluating sources, I remind them that just because they’re official documents, doesn’t mean they’re necessarily correct. Treat them like any other historical source.

  • Many records are not accurate. An adoptee’s birth certificate is certainly not-not even close; the only thing on it that is most likely fact is the date of birth; all else is fraudulent; nor does it even remotely resemble a non-adoptee’s.
    When I was finally able to retrieve my original birth certificate, and those of my 2 siblings, my mother made herself older for my birth, and with each baby there after made herself younger. For my father, however he gained years with each successive birth.
    For the 1940 census, my mother and my two aunts are listed as children of the head of the household (an uncle); and in the same census year, they are listed as daughters to their actual parents, my maternal grandparents. Consequently 3 individuals are counted twice, once in each county in which the census was done
    Whether birth, marriage or death death information, except what is noted by the physician or clerk all else is given by the individual involved or a relative… or in the case of the adoptee’s certificate the judge handling the final adoption. IN the case of an infant relinquished on or shortly after birth, the information comes from the hospital staff, an attorney, or a social worker.
    Information is relayed on the basis of the information people who report it think they know. Remember the story of Washington and the cherry tree? That incident never happened , yet it is told in many narratives and in tomes of history as fact.

  • Sometimes it’s not necessarily a case of people lying about age, date or place of birth, etc. There were a lot more people who were illiterate and didn’t know the exact dates or places and it’s really wasn’t as important to know the exact details. If you were an agricultural labourer or domestic servant in the 1800’s, for instance, it would be unlikely that you would use the information very often. I tried to trace a child who was orphaned early in life and who lived with family members until he was 16. After he married and appeared on the next census, he recorded his place of birth as where he lived most of his life, not where he was born which was several counties away. I only found him via a fortunate DNA match.

  • Great points. My great great grandfather lied about the ages of his sons, so that they could work in a cotton mill. A grand uncle lied about his age to qualify to participate in a New Deal program. There is also the fact that different people have different perspectives on what is true – Our job is often to compare these different versions of the truth and arrive at something that incorporates all or most of them.

  • Thank you for this very interesting and very true info.
    I have been researching for over 30 years and have found all of the above mentioned in my research. Not only in the distant past, but even going on more recently. When my uncle passed a few years ago. in 2006, the info put where he was born was done by his wife’s daughters (his adopted daughters). They had it rather mixed up. Not done intentionally, but still mixed up. It struck me rather humorously as he had been the family historian for that side of the family.

    On their Mother’s birth record is two different years of birth on the same page. The one that the government took to be correct and registered so, makes Grandma born three weeks after her sister. Still it was registered with both being born in 1907. When Grandma got married she had to have her father’s written permission to marry as she was under 18. But if they had taken the date as 1907 she would have been fine.
    (If they had computers back in 1907-8 this would have been picked up right away.)

  • During research for a client. Her grandmother married a younger man for her 2nd marriage not socially acceptable then. She shaved a few years off her and her children’s birthdates each time the census came around. I had to go back to the census last by her parents to figure out her actual date of birth. Death certificate and stone reflect what the mother told her children. Client obviously thought her father (the son) would know when his mother was born. He only knew what he was told!