Some family facts are truer than others: Primary vs Secondary Records
Copyright Sep 2011 LaRae Free Kerr M ED
Which records’ information should I add to my ancestor chart? The most Primary, of course.
Not all information on all documents is true. In fact, some documents with our ancestors’ names on them may lead us far afield or prevent us from finding our true origins. False or misleading information or guesses by earlier generations can bring our research to sudden and total dead ends.
So how can a researcher determine whether the information in a document has any truth to it? One way is to measure the document against the Primary/Secondary Continuum [copyright LFK. More information about this and other continuums can be found in Find Your Actual, Factual Ancestors: A Genealogy Journey in Eight Steps by LFK, soon to be available via ebook and other forms.]
Here is a schematic of the Primary/Secondary Continuum:
Primary records are those created nearest the time of the event by those most involved in the event. For example, the most primary record for a birth would be created if the moment the baby was born, the mother grabbed her diary and wrote something like this, “Five minutes ago, I gave birth to my new baby daughter, Ann Smith, born the 2nd day of January, 1887 at the Wheeler homestead outside Pioche, Nevada in Lincoln County. Her father, Bill Smith, and I, Mary Smith, are delighted to have her.”
Obviously the above diary entry does not represent real people. But if it did, and we called that diary entry record A, it would go to the far left of the Primary/Secondary continuum. It is, as they say, a record we could take to the bank.
Even an official birth certificate, if such things were available in 1887, would be slightly less primary than the diary entry. Why? Because though the midwife who delivered the baby wrote the birth in her notebook which was eventually turned in to the County Records Office, and though she was an integral participant, she didn’t enter the birth until three days after Ann was born, and then she wasn’t quite sure the baby had been named Ann because she had had a couple of rough births to attend after the Smith baby came into the world. Even so, her entry in her midwife diary would still be considered primary because the midwife was present at the birth and wrote it down only three days later. So if we assigned the midwife’s record the letter B, it would go slightly to the right of the mother’s diary.
Now let’s say we look at the 1900 census for this Ann Smith, since it is the first available census after Ann’s birth. Censuses, though the single most useful record type, are secondary because the information is taken by sheriffs and deputies at first, then by other employees, people who may not know the family at all. All the recorded events occurred some distant time from when they were written down. And the person or persons giving the information may not have known the details about family members. Sometimes the information was given by a younger child or even the neighbor. Sometimes the family did not want certain details about their family known by others, so misleading information was deliberately provided. Sometimes the census taker was just plain tired of writing and going from house to house and being yelled at, so he abbreviated names, or he rounded birth years off to every 5 years, or his handwriting became fatigued and sloppy.
Nevertheless, censuses are crucial to American genealogists because they do provide a time and place where other records can be found. Plus they show relationships among people. So if the 1900 census for this fictional Ann Smith were named Record C, it would go somewhere near the middle of the Primary/Secondary Continuum.
Eventually the the fictional researcher for Ann Smith visited Ann Smith’s only living child who said, “No, Grandma Annie was not born in 1887. She was born the year of that big snow storm. I know that’s true. I heard it all my life.” This oral interview was labeled Record D. So the researcher studied the local history and discovered the big snow was in 1889. Because this “fact” was provided by a child of Ann Smith, who could not have been present at Ann’s birth, some 80 years previous to the interview, the researcher knows it is a family legend. Family legends actually fall off the right side of the Primary/Secondary Continuum, but we’ll put Record D over there as for as it can go, because family legends often have some thread of truth in them.
After more research, the genealogist discovered there was a bit of truth to the granddaughter’s statement. A child of Mary Smith’s was born during the big snow, but it was Ann’s younger brother Clyde who was born in 1889.
So if you did have access to these four records, which would you use to build your pedigree? You would use the most primary record you could get your hands on, the one created closest to the time of the event by a person most involved in the event. The further away you got from the time of the event, the less you would believe the record. And the further you got from a participant, especially if it were only heresay, the less you would believe the information.
The genealogical principle is: Use primary records to build your pedigree if you want it to be accurate. When you run out of primary records, use the most primary of the records you have while eschewing secondary records, especially those that fall into “family legend,” the ones that wobble right off the far right of the chart.
Another caution: It is possible, even usual, to have both primary and secondary information in the same document. For example, a regular death certificate is primary for the date and place of a death, but it is actually a little less primary for the name of the person who died because that name came from a living descendant who may or may not have known the full name in its correct order. The names and birth places of the deceased's parents are totally secondary because that information was provided much later [usually] than when those events occurred by people who were not present.
Once this concept is understood, it becomes automatic and easy.