One of the biggest mistakes a genealogist starting out can make is they implicitly trust information found in online public family trees (whether that be a FamilySearch tree, an Ancestry tree, or what have you). Many people come across this information based on “hints” that their genealogy software provides. The information may or may not be the truth of how events occurred in your relative’s life (and you often don’t know who is providing it too or where they got their information).
Finding sources and records will give you proof and credibility behind the dates you enter in your family tree (in case you share your information through your online tree and others stumble upon it). The records that you really want and need to go after for your research are “primary source” records. Primary source records are records that were physically produced during your ancestor’s lifetime.
Here are the four fundamental records (and hopefully you can find one that is a “primary source”) that you should find and keep for each of your ancestors:
- Birth Records: Depending on the time and place where your ancestor lived, these records can be hard to find at times. However, usually a record can be found showing an estimated birth date and location for the person. Primary source records to look for: Birth certificates, church records, other government records (birth index, census or death records).
- Marriage Records: For each marriage (and divorce if applicable) your ancestor had, you are going to want to find proof that it actually happened. Primary source records to look for: Marriage certificate, church record, court record/decree, or other government record.
- Death Record: These records tend to be the easiest to find (because of the long held tradition of grave markers). Primary source records to look for: Death certificates, grave markers, obituaries, church records, wills, and other government records (military, probate, court records, etc.).
- Census Records: For each census year that my ancestor was alive, I strive to find their census record. These are great snapshots (in 10 year increments) of their lives and give great insight into what their life story was when looked at all together.
For American research, my “holy grail” records for an ancestor are the birth certificate, marriage certificate, and the death certificate. And I want the actual images of these documents (not just the dates from an index)!
Now it needs to be said that not all primary source records you find will be 100% accurate. But having multiple primary source documents will, a lot of times, help you distinguish between truth and error in your research.
Primary source documents are so important to genealogical research! If you or your family hasn’t started to collect these sources, I strongly encourage you to do so. Happy researching!
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