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Going to the Source

By Daniel Hubbard | November 24, 2009

When most family historians think of gathering information, they think of looking for written documents. There are other places to look, other things that are not documents but that are fine places to find information. Your source for much of what you learn as you first start out in family history should be relatives. Talking with grandma has been the starting point for many a family history project and you definitely want to talk with those older relatives while you have the chance. They are wonderful sources, if not always one hundred percent accurate.

Another classic source that is not a document is the grave marker. Sooner or later, a family historian will end up in a cemetery looking for names and dates carved into stone. Don’t stop there. Keep your eyes open for other sources. Decades ago, when a cousin of my grandmother passed away, my grandmother was sent a box of “family stuff” in the mail. There was no collection of old family documents but there were a few interesting things. My grandmother gave the box to me and it didn’t take me long to find that the 150-year-old book of hymns that was included contained some handwriting. It was a gift from a grandmother to her new grandson. The grandson was my own grandmother’s grandfather. His grandmother wrote out her full name. For years that was the only evidence I had for her name and it is still a very important puzzle piece.

So many things besides legal documents can be sources. Do you know what sources you have in your attic or what a relative might have in theirs? Just about anything can be a clue. Names, dates and places wind up on all sorts of things. They can be found in books, engraved into a medal or a baby cup, stitched into cloth, carved into a tool handle or a chair. I’ve seen a book whose cover tells you what it once was, but inside its pages have been recycled into scrap book pages.

Sometimes the dates and places don’t even need to be explicit. An envelope that lacks a date may have a stamp. When was that stamp issued? The backs of photographs may be labeled—maybe not in the way you’d like but enough to give you a clue—perhaps the labels on a picture of an extended family includes a name you’ve never seen before.

Don’t forget that, just like documents, these other sources can give you questionable information. Much of what I’ve written about questioning a document’s past (Do Your Documents Have a Shady Past? and Give your Documents the Third Degree) is also important for these other sources. Examining the headstone on my great-grandmother’s grave might make you suspicious that it is decades younger than the death date carved into it. That source apparently has a history of its own that ought to make a researcher dubious. My great-grandmother remarried, quite late in life. When she died years later, she was living with my grandfather. At the time there was no money to buy a headstone so her grave went unmarked for many years. She had no children by her second husband and he had no family in the area where she died, so when an aunt of mine decided to buy a stone, she used the surname that would connect my great-grandmother to others in the family plot even though her surname at death had been something completely different.

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Topics: Genealogy, Methods, Records | 3 Comments »

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3 Responses to “Going to the Source”

  1. Bill Smith Says:
    November 29th, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    Great post… I especially appreciate seeing the reminders to check the information that is found on these alternative sources. Very well done! 😉

  2. Joan Hill Says:
    November 30th, 2009 at 11:46 am

    I have a bunch of old letters, but I never paid much attention to the envelopes – after your post, I will be much more cognizant of the importance of the container not just the message.

  3. Daniel Hubbard Says:
    December 1st, 2009 at 12:43 am

    I’m glad this post seems to have struck a cord!