There are so many great books out there on how to
cite sources in genealogy that it would be impossible for me to provide a review
of each one. My personal favorite though is Cite Your Sources by Richard Lackey.
Many genealogists use the methods they learned in writing classes such as MLA
style or APA style. Some folks use parenthetical citations while others prefer
footnotes. Some include all of their sources and source notes in their research
notes while others only record them in source notes. For many, the method
depends more upon the software that they use than any other consideration -- my
Legacy Family Tree software provides the tools for inputting citation
information and then prints them as footnotes.
Some genealogists maintain that "Genealogy without sources is mythology." I
disagree with this idea to a great extent since a fact remains a fact whether
you can prove it or not. Further, all recorded genealogy has a source, the
question is really "how reliable is the source of this information?"
Reliability is generally determined by two factors: how close is the person
making the statement to the subject and how near in time was the statement made?
When I speak of when and where my father was born I am fairly close to the
subject (my father) but am rather removed from the time (21 years before I was
born myself). Then as a source of information about my fathers birth, I am not
as reliable a source as say his mother since she was present at the time and
Death certificates provide for a bit of reliable and unreliable information at
the same time. The doctor who signed the certificate is aware of when, why, and
where someone died and that information is fairly reliable. Some of the other
information though is often questionable. A family member under great stress
provides the information about the names of parents and place of birth of the
deceased. How many of your cousins know the full names and place of birth of the
parents of your grandmother? In this day and age, many folks don't know the full
names and place of birth of their grandparents let alone their
great-grandparents. For that reason, information on a death certificate that is
removed in both place and time must be considered as not as reliable as
information obtained closer in time. This information is though a great source
of clues to help locate a primary source document.
Similarly, a marriage certificate is a reasonably accurate source of information
about the specific events of a marriage (such as marriage date, bride and groom,
location...) but is not as reliable a source about some other information such
as names of parents and even home of record. My marriage certificate says I am
"from Concord NC" when in fact I was born in Maryland and was married in Sylva
NC and lived in Gaffney SC at the time. I can only imagine the frustration of my
genealogy minded great-grandchildren one day when they try to find my birth
record in the two Carolinas.
This is especially true with parents who have names which are frequently
truncated to a nick-name -- Billy and Bill for William comes to mind here. There
have been in times past many instances of nick-name usage that has fallen from
common use today. In years past it was common for Margaret to be called Peggy,
Mary Ann might have been referred to as Molly, we still use Bill and Billy for
William as well as Bob and Bobby for Robert. And don't forget Jack for John...
Consider too those names which have been anglicized or even spelled differently
across generations. Smyth, Smythe, Smith are probably the same name.
Also remember that, while it is true that all people with the same surname are
not necessarily related (with some few exceptions in truly unique names) -- that
doesn't mean that they are not in fact related. It is not uncommon in many small
communities for second and third cousins to
marry -- do you know all of your third cousins?
Whatever method you use, it is imperative that you record your sources. The more
detail you provide in your source data, the more useful it becomes. Recording a
source as "birth certificate" is far less useful later than "birth certificate
of Jane Smith. Recorded in Book 328, Page 116 Cleveland County NC Register of
Deeds. A copy is in the files of Joan Smith..." Similarly, recording a citation
as "tombstone" is not as useful as "tombstone of John Major at Saint Luke's
Parish Church Cemetery in Charleston SC which reads 'John Major - born 5 July
1801 died 6 May 1898 - 1st SC Mtd. Cav. CSA'. a photo is in the files of Joan
It sometimes helps to think of your sources on a scale of 1-5 with 1 being the
highest reliability. A source with a surety of 1 or 2 (highest) might be "dad
said that he lived in Charleston South Carolina when he was 15-18 years old..."
In this case we are talking about "dad" and "dad" is the respondent (closeness
to subject" and he is reporting on an event that he participated at the time
(closeness to time) and he was certainly old enough at 15 years old to know the
name of the town he lived in. It is more than a little reasonable to assume this
is an accurate statement. The name of a mother and child (not father), the date,
and place of birth found on a birth certificate recorded at the time of birth is
a level 1 surety too. The name of the father is a 3 surety at best because it is
being reported by the mother (removed in both time and place by at least 9
Another example of a 3 (middle) surety might be the names of parents reported on
a marriage certificate. This information is removed in time, place, and person
since the grooms parents don't complete the form but the groom does. It can
still be assumed to be reasonably accurate but it is not uncommon for the bride
or groom to list here adopted parents or step parents...
An example of a surety of 5 (low) would be those unsubstantiated family
traditions. At least until such time as you are able to proof them -- if ever.
The "Great Grandma was an Indian..." or "Great Grandfather's brother was at Bull
Run..." stories are such surety until you either prove or disprove the issue.
"Sources" which are information provided undocumented by another researcher or
family are as easily recorded as research notes. "Joan Smith
(Joan@someplace.com) said that...."
These are incredibly valuable notes later when you can't remember where you got
that information! Several such notes in my records have provided the missing
link that has led to discovery of important family history records. You'd be
amazed at how important "Jane Smith
(Jane@Somewhere.com) said that her mother always told her that Grandpa Jones
owned a little grocery down on west 3rd street..." becomes as you are trying to
put together the days of Grandpa Jones life. These are the items that many
genealogists refer to as unproven or undocumented family tradition. That these
issues have not yet been proven by reference sources does not make them false!
If there is a family tradition that Grandpa Smith's brother died in the Civil
War at Manassas then this tradition needs to be recorded -- albeit with the
caveat that the information is yet unproven. Without recording of that
tradition, there is no reason to go looking for the proofs. Probably the single
most common unproven family tradition is the one which implies "Great
Grandmother was an Indian..."