Very Necessary: Primary Sources

In the world of genealogy, primary sources are a type of best friend. They add weight to the credibility of our research and should be applied as much as possible to our work.

What is the definition and what are some examples of primary sources?

According to the Healey Library at the University of Massachusetts Boston, primary sources are defined as:

“Primary Sources are immediate, first-hand accounts of a topic, from people who had a direct connection with it. Primary sources can include:

Texts of laws and other original documents.

Newspaper reports, by reporters who witnessed an event or who quote people who did.

Speeches, diaries, letters and interviews – what the people involved said or wrote.

Original research.

Datasets, survey data, such as census or economic statistics.

Photographs, video, or audio that capture an event.”

Primary records, such as the above, are used to prove or disprove ancestral connections. Where can we find these important materials, especially online?

Newspapers. Newspapers.com (by Ancestry), Chronicling America (Library of Congress) , ProQuest Historical Newspapers (Colleges, Universities, and Libraries), and Google News Archive are just a few examples of excellent online resources for birth, marriage and death announcements, obituaries and other time-stamped details that document genealogical information with gravitas.

Court Records. National Archives Court Records, Ancestry (Court, Land, Wills, and Financial Records), FamilySearch (Court Records), Virginia Chancery Court Records (Library of Virginia) are websites where repositories of searchable court records are available. There are many other sites online, check your local or research area jurisdictions for more court records website options.

Personal Papers. Archival Materials. Manuscripts. Letters. National Archives (Pieces of History) and numerous libraries, universities and colleges house these primary sources that are a wealth of genealogical information.

What is the importance of primary sources and why isn’t the convenience of the ‘copy + paste’ method of gathering source information acceptable in genealogy research?

It boils down to one word: accuracy.

Accuracy yields credibility and that is essential in a field where people are looking to learn/reclaim family history. It can help nothing other than the vain ego to compound voluminous and erroneous branches of the family tree.

What is another avenue of primary source material?

Genetic genealogy, the burgeoning science that utilizes DNA testing results and traditional genealogy, is fast becoming a very credible source of information for everyone from laypersons to law enforcement. Blood (and DNA) will tell when nothing or no one else will.

Here is more information from ISOGG, the International Society of Genetic Genealogy:

The DNA replicated in the cells of your body is essentially your personal building and operating instructions given to you by your parents. But more than that it contains the encyclopedia of where you came from. It is the story of your ancestors told through the bits of DNA that they have passed down to you. It is that passing down, generation after generation that makes it so important to genealogists. That’s what we mean by Dead People Can Talk. Your ancestors speak to you about their pasts via the DNA you still carry from them.” —Beginner’s Guide to Genetic Genealogy by Kelly Wheaton

How can we use the datasets from our DNA testing results to form compelling primary source information?

Reviewing shared DNA matches.

According to Kitty Cooper’s Blog, “The most promising matches are those with more than one segment and preferably at least one of those segments larger than 10cM.”

Read and learn more at: Using your DNA test results: the Basics for Genealogists

Additionally, comparing your DNA matches at a third-party DNA utility site, like GEDmatch, is very helpful in order to identify triangulation among matches. Triangulation in genetic genealogy you and at least two other matches share DNA in the same place (i.e., on the same chromosome). Triangulation helps us to confirm real DNA matches (shared ancestry) versus statistical noise.

Another type of primary source information for genealogical purposes are interviews. For example, from 1936 through 1938, workers from The Federal Writers’ Project, part of the WPA, interviewed former enslaved persons for their life stories.

Likewise and since 2003, StoryCorps is an organization whose mission is: “to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.” A repository of voices sharing their lived experiences, it is another example of what primary sources look like and is.

I hope that this information proves helpful to you in your genealogical journey and in discovering those important first-hand accounts along the way.

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