What a great question! As genealogist we have so many inaccuracies to deal with it’s sometimes hard to decide what is the right info from the wrong.
For instance, on my Grandfather’s death certificate his birth year is listed as 1894, when in fact he was born in 1884 and found on the 1900 census. Grandma was able to clear up that “mistake”. Grandma wanted to marry Grandpa, but she was seventeen and her mother thought Grandpa was too old for her. So, he applied for a delayed birth certificate with the year of birth ten years later then he was born. The certificate appeased Grandma’s mother, and she signed for the marriage. In this case when Grandpa died his family (my Dad, and three Aunts) filled in the death certificate, not knowing their father was in fact ten years older. What a shock when I asked Grandma about Grandpa being on a census before he was even born. They never told anyone in the family. Since the census clearly showed him born before the date on the birth certificate I used the census for my source.
While the census is not 100% accurate, they are a valuable source for establishing where the family lived, the approximate ages, and place of birth, language, education, and occupation. Books, in my opinion, may have the most mistakes. Many times they are written by a family member who will transcribe what someone else has written. I use them to find resources, list them as a source, and know that there are mistakes. Death records and obituaries are only as good as the person giving the information, but they too are a valuable source.
When doing genealogy, I look at everything, source it ALL, and us a preponderance of evidence to support my claims. I try to make sure if I have everything sourced so anyone can go to the source and see for themselves why I believe the way I do.
My grandmother lied about her age forever, my dad and uncles always thought she was born in 1917, the same year as my grandfather, but she was actually born in 1915, but back in the day, the lady was never older, LOL :) I think the SSDI has it right, though. :)
Also, on my FIL's great grandfather's death record, they couldn't add, so I still couldn't find out what year he was born. And his obituary had a different age listed than what was on his death record. He was an actor born circa 1846-1852 and died in 1924. I can't find out his parents even though I have a marriage certificate and interview where he tells who his parents were, I can't prove it. I don't even know if his name was his real name, LOL. :)
Kate, welcome to my club of non-math family. You really are in a pickle with having information but not being able to use it. Have you posted the info you have in the "Most Wanted" group? If not, you should. I would love to know more and see what can be done to break through the wall you have.
I'm actually helping Gene run the Most Wanted group. :)
I have tons of information on William A Lavelle, except his true biographical information. Like his great great grandson(my SO) he was a grand storyteller, but some of it turns out to be 'true' but I can't find his parents or record of first marriage yet, though he appears on his only child's(that we know about) birth record. I have his obits, his record of second marriage, tons of theater info, so I know where he was in different time periods, just can't find him 1850-1900 census records....
That is a great question, and one that I've been pondering lately.
Up until I read CaryAnn's reply, I would have said that I considered a birth certificate to be proof positive. I guess I'll have to rethink that now... :-)
I suppose that I consider the most reliable sources to be those where the "informant" was someone who should have known the correct data. For example, I have a copy of a handwritten "Family Record" that was compiled by one of my Moffat ancestors, Reuben Curtis Moffat, in the mid-1800's. I do not consider that record to be conclusive evidence for most of its contents, such as birth, marriage and death dates for our ancestors who lived in the 1700's. However, I do consider it reasonably strong proof of Reuben Curtis Moffat's own birth, parentage, etc., because... well, he should know. Using the same logic, I would normally consider a birth certificate to be proof of the baby's name, date of birth and parentage (at least the mother) if a parent was the informant.
As far as I’m concerned, death certificates are only proof of date, location and cause of death. Beyond that, as you say, Kate, the death certificate is often less than reliable. Taking it a step further, since you usually can’t be sure who the informant was for a census record, you have to take most census data with a grain of salt.
In the end, I rely on finding multiple agreeing sources that I’m sure are unique. (“Unique” is usually the problem with using books and other people’s research – you often can’t be sure that it didn’t all come from the same, inaccurate, source.)
All of that is one of the reasons I love being able to set a “confidence level” for source data when I enter them into my database. So, the death information on a death certificate will get a high confidence level, but the birth information from the same death certificate will score lower.
Having said all of that... you could conclude that right now the only data I really consider “proved” is the stuff I know first hand. So I’m reasonably sure that my name is Kathleen. :-))
I'm not even sure what my surname is! According to my 4th great grandfather's genealogy, his mother was a Steere, but no sign of her marriage or death. Her name appears on his death record, and her sister claimed him as a nephew, and he was obviously raised as a Steere, and he is listed as a Steere in Rhode Island history books.
I've traced the siblings of his aunt that I can follow. its tougher in the late 1700's early 1800s, but they do have some good records in RI.
Because my dad looks very Native American, there was always a rumor of being Cherokee..who hasn't heard that before, and looking at early RI census records there are Indians that are counted, but no proof.
I have theories, but nothing I can prove...but his uncle by marriage was town clerk and Judge in the area for years, then his son took over(at least I'm assuming he took over from his father) so if there was anything scandalous, its long gone.
I find an obit for my 4th great grandfather, Shadrach Steere in a Quaker journal on Google Books, no mention of who his parents were...naturally, LOL and Quakers are pretty good at record keeping. :)
Thanks for the welcome, Kate (whatever your real name may be...)
So much of that sounds familiar! My grandmother always said she wasn't even sure what her real first name was. Her mother died when she was little, and her father and brothers always called her "Belle". By the time she was old enough to wonder what that was short for, her father had died, too. If that wasn't enough, the building where her hometown kept the vital records burned down.
Thankfully, though, she didn't live as long ago as your gggg-grandfather: I recently found her family on the 1900 census. She was a 10 year old named - Isabelle. Not conclusive proof :-) but not bad.
I'm not sure if I'm looking forward to trying to confirm the info I've got on my ancestors from the 1700's... as you said, it gets tougher the farther back you go. Still, you never know... you could get lucky one of these days!
Kathleen, I know how your grandmother felt. When I was 35 my dear mother asked me why I didn't go by my right name? What right name? I go by Cary, everyone calls me Cary, what was she talking about? That's when she said my name was CaryAnn, no middle name, no separation of letters, just look at my birth certificate to see how it should be. Here I thought she was always mad at me while growing up and saying, "CaryAnn."
I still go by Cary, except for proper papers where I must have my legal name.
My working definition of a primary source is it must be (a) contemporary and (b) reliable. But no primary source on its own should be considered definitive on its own, its preferable if you have more than one to back it up.
Also a single source might be both primary and secondary. For example the latest edition of Burkes Peerage could be primary for a recent event but secondary for a past one.
A family bible is the same. One quite well known Kennedy bible records a birth of the writer's grandfather and has been cited as proof of the grandfather's parents. But this particular record has to be considered secondary only.