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  • For Beginners (and Everyone Else) the Best Research Comes From Primary Sources

    (The first of a series)

    William Bradford Towne, Sr.

    Published Date : December 1983
    No one who calls himself or herself a genealogist can get by without a thorough familiarity with genealogical evidence, its definition, its forms, its types and its values.  An understanding of genealogical evidence is essential so we can interpret better the information we gather, and as far as that goes knowing what information to go after.  The data has to be analyzed by a researcher with a good background in genealogical evidence.  He or she can consider the gathering of the evidence closely akin to what a lawyer has to do to uncover the facts of his cases.  It would do genealogists, even amateur ones, to "make like a lawyer" when they hunt for data because genealogical research is by nature extremely close to legal research.  Legal and genealogical data both go hand-in-hand and are often one in the same. Back to Table of Contents

    Often the researcher will run into situations such as those that follow: "My granny told me she was descended from the Cherokees. If she said it, it most be true"  What about the inscriptions on a tombstone? "They must be accurate they’re carved right into the stone, aren’t they?"  A lady in her fifties said, "I found this real old book.  It most be a hundred years old by now.  It tells about who the first settlers of Frenchman’s Bay at Bar Harbor were.  I’d believe any book that’s as old as that is!"  One man related this tale: "In the town library I found this huge book.  It had the life stories of a lot of the most influential citizens of the town in it.  My grandfather is there and it tells all about his ancestors way back to the English kings.  The librarian called it a 'mug-book.' I wonder why he called it that."

    Part of the understanding of genealogical evidence is discrimination.  That is, the ability of the researcher to tell the difference between what is fact and what is fiction — what is true, what is data with some degree of truth and what is blatantly false.

    Family legends, traditions, old letters and momentos may have some truth in them.  In my own family the legend was handed down through the generations that we are all descendants of Martin Luther.  You can believe that we always thought we were some very proud protestants.  When my cousin and I became interested in genealogy we set forth to check out the old tale.  The result was that we found out that the hand-me-down was true!  We were indeed descended from Martin Luther — Martin Luther Clinkard, that is.  Our mothers were both Clinkards.  The first Clinkard to walk  on American soil was for certain: Martin Luther Clinkard, right off the boat from Hamburg.  We’ve never found out if his lineage went back to the Martin Luther of Protestant Reformation fame.  In this case the information we had was true and it was not true at the same time.

    Primary records, on the other hand, would be almost indisputable.  Greenwood (Greenwood, Val. D., The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy), defines a primary genealogical source as "one which has had its origin with someone directly involved with the event being reported, near the time of that event."  Other sources, he explains, are secondary ones.  In legalize a primary source has the title "best evidence."

    Unfortunately at this point in time no real standards have been set for genealogists regarding the evaluation of evidence even though it borrows quite a bit from lawyers.  Guidelines have yet to be agreed upon, specific rules have not been laid down and an agreement on these has not been reached.

    It is probably best for us to begin our study of evidence by taking a look at what is the "best" evidence.  In this series an attempt will be made to acquaint ourselves with the type of genealogical evidence called "primary evidence."

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