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  • Researching Your Mayflower Ancestors: Part V: Primary Research: Finding the best records to prove your case

    Alicia Crane Williams

    Published Date : March 15, 2006

    In the hierarchy of documenting a lineage, primary records are the most desirable. Even when secondary sources seem to give reliable information, it is always prudent to track down as much primary documentation to support the secondary source as possible. However, because primary records can be difficult to find, or to understand once found, many people applying for membership in hereditary societies make the error of providing minimal or inadequate primary sources.

    The Mayflower Society wants primary documentation in support of every generation on every lineage paper (it requires it for the last three generations). It will accept "good" secondary sources - particularly those that cite primary references. In extreme cases it will accept circumstantial arguments, but not without proof that a diligent search has been made for primary records. The more primary documentation presented with a lineage application, the better case for acceptance.

    A "primary" source can be described as an acceptable record made at the time of an event or by a reliable witness to the event (you were present at your own birth, for example, but not a "reliable" witness to it). Acceptable primary records include birth, marriage, and death certificates, Bible, church, cemetery, probate, and land records, but there are many different kinds of records that may be used.

    Birth, marriage, and death records:
    Vital records (births, marriages, deaths) may be kept by the town, county, and/or the state, each of which will have different parameters - when they began keeping records, what clerk, registries or courts have the records, what records are open, who can access the records, when, and for how much. Privacy and security issues have tightened controls on access to records, particularly birth records that might be used fraudulently, and some records may only be available to family members and authorized individuals. In some cases certificates for "genealogical use only" may be issued. One of the reasons that every researcher should obtain copies of vital records now is the threat of having access to these records closed in the future.

    Guides to locating where vital records may be obtained are available on the Internet (start with and in print (see research articles and publications). There are also on-line services through which some state level vital records can be ordered for a fee ('s "VitalChek" for one). If you are looking for a record in a state where births, marriages, and deaths were kept by the town, it may be faster and less expensive to write to the town clerk for a record - although this depends on the individual clerk.

    The usefulness of a vital record depends on the detail of information and the informant. In many places "short form" birth certificates are issued which do not include the names of parents, or have limited information. These "short form" records are not acceptable. "Long form" certificates with all of the information from the original record are required, or a copy from the original record itself. Birth and marriage records are usually the most reliable (because informants are the parents or the individuals being married), death records are often the least reliable (because the informant may be a distraught spouse, grandchild, or unrelated person) - although there are exceptions to everything.

    Older records may be available on microfilm and/or online, such as the Massachusetts vital records 1841-1910 available through Many may also be found at libraries and repositories such as the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Published volumes of vital records may also be used.

    Bible records
    A family Bible with "contemporary" records is considered primary. Contemporary means the records were entered into the Bible at the time of the events or by someone who witnessed the events. Handwriting can often be used to determine who made different entries. Whenever possible, the title page of the Bible with the date of publication should be submitted with copies of all of the pages with family information. Provenance of the Bible stating to whom it originally belonged, to whom it now belongs, and, if possible, identifying owners in between, should also be attached to the copies.

    Transcriptions or abstracts made from a Bible that has been lost may be acceptable if the transcriber can be identified and some information on when and where the transcription was made is provided. Unless complete and literal, the transcription becomes secondary evidence.

    Church and Cemetery Records
    Baptisms, marriages, and burials were recorded by religious organizations. Many times a record that was not kept by the civil authority may show up in a church record. Gravestones may be the only surviving record of some ancestors. Local libraries are often the best sources for knowledge of local churches, cemeteries and their records. Religious denominations have regional or national repositories of some records (such as Catholic dioceses). includes hundreds of transcriptions from church and cemetery records scattered throughout the country (on-line transcriptions or abstracts are considered secondary).

    Photographs of gravestones are admissible for the date of death, age of death, relationship ("wife of") if given, and place of burial (not necessarily place of death), although, like death records, they can be unreliable (if the stone carver cut the wrong age, it was probably cheaper just to leave it). Stones erected by a later generation are not contemporary. Cemetery lot maps and records can be used to show family relationships.

    Probate and records
    Probate records can be extremely useful in proving connections between generations. Many probate records have been microfilmed and can be accessed through the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and other Mormon stake libraries as well as state and local institutions, and in some cases indexes have been published on-line.

    Most probates are kept by the county, although in a few states they are kept by probate districts or the town. You can also find guides explaining the types of probate (testate and intestate), terminology, and the various records found in probate files. The most obvious are wills, which can make a direct link between parent and child, sometimes grandchildren, but even estates without wills may contain receipts, distributions, divisions, guardianships, etc., that name heirs - such as the receipt given by John Littlejohn for the cow his wife Sarah inherited from her father's estate, which is the only proof of who Sarah married!

    Not every ancestor left a probate record, of course. Probate was required only when there was property, and many died without owning enough to go through probate. Property, however, did not only mean real estate. Personal estate (from clothes to furniture to livestock) was also included in probate. A probate search should always be an important part of every genealogical case and will often be requested by the Mayflower Society to prove or shore up a weak link in a lineage.

    Land records are difficult to use, but they, too, can provide valuable information, particularly when other sources are not found. The Mormon microfilms include deeds as well as probate mentioned above, but indexes to deeds are less often found on-line. Usually, land records can be found in the same courthouse or town hall as the probate records, so a search in one can be supplemented by a search in the other.

    A search in deeds is not as clear cut as one in probate where everything will be found in a single file. The most obvious land records for proving a lineage are those in which a parent deeds land to a child with specific relationships stated, but most deeds do not give relationships (which may have to be inferred through a series of records). Deeds may be used to show migration - such as John Smith of Ames, Iowa, selling property he had owned in Plymouth, Massachusetts. They may also be used to identify spouses - e.g., John Smith and wife Jane selling land Jane inherited from her father.

    Because of the complexity of deed searches, the services of a professional researcher may be useful. For the purposes of proving a lineage, land records do not need to be consulted unless there is a particular problem that cannot be solved with other records.

    Other Primary Records
    The variety of other records that can be used to prove a lineage is nearly unlimited. A few examples:

    Pension Records: Revolutionary War pensions are now available on-line (through and in published abstracts. Not all pension records contain genealogical information, but many provide proof of marriage (for a widow's pension), names and birth dates of children, affidavits of siblings and children, and sometimes actual pages torn out of the family Bible! Pension records can also prove geographic migrations - e.g. that John Brown who served from Massachusetts was the man who moved to Broome County, New York. Civil War pensions can be obtained through the National Archives and branches, and World War I Draft registrations are available online at

    Census Records: Census records are not really primary records because the quality of the census information was often compromised by the thoroughness and competency of the census taker and from whom the information was obtained. The census taker was concentrating on gathering statistics, not on proving lineages, thus inventive spellings, odd ages, and other anomalies abound. However, because all census records are now available on the Internet, a thorough census search for any family is feasible and can enhance proof of relationships and migration of families - Joseph Alden found in the 1880 census, for example, with ten children; the first three born in Massachusetts, three in Pennsylvania, one in Kentucky, two in Missouri, and the last born in Arkansas.

    Tax and Town Records: Tax records can prove residency and sometimes relationships when heirs are named in succeeding tax rolls. They may be useful in differentiating between two individuals of the same name living in the same location. Town records other than births, marriages, and deaths may include "warnings out" (when individuals or families were warned to leave the jurisdiction of a town where they did not have a means of support), registration of cattle marks ( often inherited or transferred to heirs); and land records. Some early New England town records have been published - Plymouth, Duxbury, Scituate - and others are available on microfilm. Usually un-indexed, original town records may be difficult to search, but can be a source of last resort in difficult cases.

    Family Letters and Diaries: Original family letters or diary entries may be used to prove relationships when the writer had personal knowledge of the information given. The writer and person receiving the letter should be identified and the date of writing included; envelopes with postmarks and addresses are also useful.

    I have seen autograph books, samplers, school records, insurance policies, medical reports, and many other eclectic items used to prove Mayflower lineages! No stone left unturned is a genealogist's best motto.

    That said, applicants should not clutter their applications with extraneous records, but should locate and submit the best records available to prove their lineage.
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