Every serious genealogist attempts to provide one or more sources for each fact and event in his or her genealogy. Complete and accurate source citations are the stock-in-trade of the Board for Certification of Genealogists® which offers the Certified Genealogist (CG) designation. Whether you are a beginning or experienced genealogist, every effort should be made to source your data.
In general, there are two types of sources for genealogical data, primary and secondary, and the dividing lines between the two types are often blurry. Primary sources are considered to be those which are recorded at the time an event actually happened. Secondary sources are those recorded at a later date. Birth certificates and marriage certificates are primary sources, since they record a single event at the time and place it actually happened.
But what about death certificates? The record of the date and place of death is a primary source, but the date and place of birth of the decedent and the names of the decedent’s parents are reported by the informant, and they may or may not be correct. They are therefore secondary sources. One can say the same thing about gravestones. The date of death is invariably correct, it being a recent event, but the date of birth may be incorrect. Similarly, family bibles would be considered a primary source if the event is recorded at the time, but a secondary source for all births, marriages, and deaths recorded some years after the event took place.
In my searches for my ancestors, I have visited hundreds of gravestones. Not surprisingly, I have found many with an incorrect date of birth, or at least an inconsistency with another record, such as a census. Events such as birth dates that are reported years after the fact are often incorrect. For that matter, any data which depends on the recollection of someone else can often be wrong. A perfect example is my grandfather’s death certificate.
My father never knew his paternal grandparents, both having died before he was born. He also hardly knew his father’s brother and sisters, if at all. His closest paternal relative was a first cousin, the daughter of one of his father’s sisters. So his familiarity with his father’s side of his family was limited at best. As I mentioned in my previous blog, my mother was the family historian who kept track of her own family as well as my father’s family.
When my father’s father died in 1950, my father was the “Informant” on his death certificate. When he was asked for the names of his father’s parents, my father replied “Elias Skillman” and “Unknown Mersereau.” In actuality, his father’s parents were John M. Skillman and Angeline Randall. The names he listed on his father’s death certificate as his father’s parents were actually his father’s grandparents! So, as a passionate genealogist, I am embarrassed to say that my own father was a very unreliable secondary source on his father’s death certificate. So be careful in your family research, as all may not be as it appears.
John E. Skillman III