Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Digging into sources in the FamilySearch Family Tree - Part Five -- Evaluating Sources

How do we determine whether or not a particular genealogical source is accurate or not? This is a challenging issue and involves the process of asking a series of questions about the reliability and believability of the source. Here are a few examples of the type of questions I would ask about a document or record that I was considering using:
  • Who provided the information contained in the document or record?
  • Did that person participate in or experience the event or events recorded in the document or record?
  • What is the time lapse between the event and the drafting of the record or document?
  • Did the person who observed the recorded events actually create the record or document?
  • Was the person drafting the record or document in a position to know or judge the accuracy of the information supplied?
  • How consistent and believable are the records or documents within the existing time, place, and circumstances?
This is, of course, not a complete list but merely some of the types of questions that should be asked about any historical record or document. 

Over the past years, genealogists have tried to pigeon hole records or documents by borrowing both legal and scientific jargon. I have written about these attempts on many occasions to argue that using both legal and scientific terminology is detrimental to genealogical research. Trying to apply concepts of evidence and proof to genealogical research is nonproductive. Likewise, all of the elaborate schemes where records and documents are categorized as "primary," "secondary" etc. are inapplicable to the type of evaluation applied to historical documents. Lawyers and scientists tend to see everything in terms of their particular disciplines. But borrowing the terms from law and science simply adds a degree of complexity that is unneeded and, at times, misleading.

In the process of doing historical (including genealogical) research, the historian or genealogist forms an opinion concerning what happened in the past as a series of conclusions. At all times, those conclusions are based on the accuracy of the records or documents relied upon in forming the researcher's conclusions. As is the case with all forms of historical research and particularly with genealogical research, all the conclusions reached are subject to reevaluation and modification when additional historical records are discovered. Let me illustrate this process by using a series of examples of research using some actual entries in the Family Tree. May I remind all my readers, than any time I give an example from the Family Tree, you or any other registered user of the Family Tree can use the ID numbers of the people to go look at the examples directly in the Family Tree.

Let's suppose you are investigating your ancestor and you reach the end of the line. You might be tempted to enter an entry such as this one:

This particular entry is one of a long series of "ancestors" added to the Family Tree ultimately going back to 1150 A.D. Someone has concluded that one of my own remote ancestors is part of this line of descent. There are no sources or memories and so we have no idea where this information came from, but apparently, some book or record contained this list of people and someone assumed that my Morgan line, which arguably originated in Wales, was partially descended from this person. If I come forward in time, I finally come to the following:

This is the last person in that line that shows a source. The source is listed as "England, Select Cheshire Bishop's Transcripts, 1598-1900" and was supposedly obtained from However, there is no link to the actual record. Now, we cannot follow the thought process of the person who made this entry without some link to some source. I am forced to redo all of the research back to end of this line to verify the information.

So, let's move forward in time on this line and see if I can find out why they think my Welsh family is related to these people from England. Coming forward I come to this entry.

In this case, there is a source with specific information. Here is the "source."

This is the only source. I do not have any information supporting the conclusion of a birth date or death date. Once again, if I want to believe this information, I will have to redo all of the research. So I will continue moving forward in time until I find some substantial support for the conclusions recorded by this series of researchers. Of course, I skip over the people listed who have no supporting sources because I will still need to redo all that research. Here is the first person with more than one source.

Hmm. Eight sources listed. Maybe we are getting somewhere. But there is a problem. This person is listed as born in Cheshire, England but his wife is listed as born in Cambridge and all the children as listed as born in Staffordshire. So the next generation is born in the Staffordshire. There are no sources cited showing how the family moved from Cheshire to Staffordshire about 50 miles away.

So far, all of the sources listed and all of the many generations of people added are apparently based on matching names. The sources linking the generations are missing. All of this research will have to be redone. Johannis Malbon's daughter, Elizabeth Malbon, is supposed to have married William Hamilton (Hambleton).

There are no sources documenting that this extensive line is actually related to any of my own ancestors even though many people have added this information to one of my own lines. In using this example, I simply clicked back to some remote ancestor on my own family lines as shown in the Family Tree. I could have taken a shortcut and started with my own name and followed the line back, but I wanted to illustrate the fact that none of these links for all these generations have any sources substantiating the conclusions. Let's continue coming forward in time to William Hamilton. If I am going to accept the validity of these conclusions, I will be forced to redo all of the research so far.

There are no sources cited for William Hamilton's birth or death. His son, Thomas Hamilton, my supposed ancestor, is listed as born in Barnstable, Massachusetts in 1718. All of the other listed children were born in Staffordshire, England and the father, William, dies in England. How did the son get born in Massachusetts?

Apparently, from this record, his parents came to America to have a baby and then went back to England to have the baby christened and then sent the child across the ocean by himself to America again because he died in the United States. Unfortunately, none of this extensive traveling has been documented with even one source.

We still haven't gotten to one of this line of ancestors in the Family Tree that has been substantiated by any sources. Yes, these researchers had an opinion but without sources cited to support their opinion, I would have to reject the entire line and redo all of the research. Wait. I still haven't connected this family line to anyone in my own fully sourced and supported conclusions. Thomas Hamilton has a son named John. According to the tree details John's father Thomas was born in Massachusetts, was christened in England and marries in Kentucky in 1749, before the first settlers arrived with Daniel Boone in 1767. In fact, "Mrs. Thomas Hambleton" was supposedly born in Kentucky around 1722, long before any Europeans lived there. Was she an Indian? If so, none of her genes got to me since my DNA test does not show any Native American connections.

Well, we have about 800 years of ancestors consisting of about 20 generations that are totally unsubstantiated.  What happened to evaluating the records?

Do I really have any connection to this extensive ancestral line? The only source listed for John Hamilton is a Sons of the American Revolution Membership Application. By the way, despite his parents' supposed move to Kentucky, John was supposed to be born in Augusta, Virginia in 1755, still, before anyone had settled in Kentucky.

We finally get down to the part of the line that may be related to me, but that is the topic of another post on another day.

Would this line be recorded in the Family Tree if the researchers had recorded their sources and properly evaluated the information? I suspect not.

Previous posts in this series


  1. An admirable aspiration, but how do we deal with "drive-bys." I have a "relative" who has over 70,000 people in his database who cycles through our common family members every couple years and adds random people with the same last names to FamilySearch Family Tree. Yesterday, he added a child with the same last name born in England to a couple who lived all their lives in Virginia. The father had been dead for 13 years and the mother was 83 years old when the child was born!

    We have corresponded, but his usual response is his database is so big, he can't check everything.

    1. I suppose there will always be a random element in the Family Tree, but by watching and responding we can cut down on this issue considerably.