08 January 2014

Properly Analyzing Documents -- a key to genealogical success!


The New Year is an opportunity to make resolutions.  Now, whether you follow up on those or not, I’ll leave to you!

I was reminded of a great one for genealogists – understand the provenance and history of the document you are basing your family tree on!  Basically, make sure that you analyze every document both for its content and also for its provenance and also for its genealogical value.

Just this past week as I was working to substantiate a lineage for a client, I determined that there was one “prayer book” which was referenced several times and purportedly included data back to the mid-1800s.  Upon closer examination, I noticed two items about this “prayer book”:
·    The hand-writing is the same on the first so many pages
·    The publication date is 1912

Given this, we convincingly know that this was NOT a real-time publication for the stated events.  The information was written as much as 150 years after the fact and without other documents independently corroborating what is stated, the contents at best serve as nice clues.

The above was just a simple example of why we need to carefully examine the documents we come across.

For me, a related element is that when I abstract or summarize a document, I make sure to note anything that could have relevance in the future even if I don’t know the importance now.  For example, for many documents, when abstracted, people love to leave off who were the witnesses.  Those witnesses are part of your ancestor’s FAN club as documented via wills, land records, bonds and many other documents. I’ve also come across abstracted records where only the entries for known forenames are pulled out.  You need to document everyone of your surname of interest unless you know for a fact that no-one else with that surname in that community was related to your ancestor. 

I don’t know about you and I prefer to only revisit original records if I know there is something juicy to be pursued versus visiting the same documents time and again because I was less than complete in the information I summarized and so I need to keep revisiting to verify the document’s details. 

Here are some resources that will help you with just this:
·    Analyzing a Historical Document (About.com, Kimberly Powell)
·    Search on Board for Certification for Genealogists site for term Analyzing
·    Analyzing a Historical Document (Hamilton College)
·    Scholars Analyzing Documents (world history sources)

Don’t forget that I haven’t discussed looking for documents that can’t exist and yet people look for!  Possibly another New Year resolution worth discussing!


What suggestions/tips would you offer about the best way to analyze a historical document?









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