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Strategies for Starting Your Family History: Evidence Analysis


    Last week I discussed source citations.  As we look at various sources, be they books, certificates, census records or other artifacts, we are gathering evidence from them and it’s therefore important that we understand what we’re looking at, why it was created, and where the information contained in that source came from.  As genealogists and family historians, our goal is to find original sources...documents that were created at the time an event took place by someone with first hand knowledge of the event.  We’re not always able to find original documents, but that is the goal to support our research.  If a source does not meet the two criteria listed above, it is a derivative source.

    The fact that a source is original doesn’t mean the information contained in it is correct.  My father-in-laws original birth certificate spells his name incorrectly.  All sources contain information and the information can be primary or secondary.  Primary information is information given by someone who was a participant in the event or who witnessed it.  Other information is secondary.  Primary information may contain errors as well.  A mother is present at the birth of her child, yet we all know of instances where the birthdate is incorrect.

    The third concept is of or indirect.  Direct evidence provides the answer we are looking for without the need for additional documentation.  A birth certificate with the name of the father and mother of the child.  Sometimes there is no direct evidence available and we need to write a proof summary presenting evidence from multiple sources not directly related to the question we are trying to answer.  I needed to prove James was the son of David but there was no extant birth or baptismal record.  By following James’ land deeds through three New England towns, and two states, along with David’s will I was able to prove that the James who lived in New York was the son of David who died in Connecticut.

    If you are new to genealogy, one of the first things you’ll look for are home sources.  So what original documents might you find?  Birth, death or marriage certificates, naturalization papers, newspaper clippings, obituaries, a family bible, deeds, photographs, military records, legal records, church might find any or all of these plus more.  Or, if you family was like mine, you might find none <g>.   This is where you want to hope that you are descended from a bunch of pack rats. 

    Let’s look at an example of a document and analyze the information.  The document is an original document, the death certificate of Patrick J. Moughty.  The purpose of this document was to register his death, it was created at the time of his death and signed by the medical examiner who was called to the house when he died therefore a witness to the death.  A death certificate meets the criteria for an original document. 

    Next let’s look at the information contained in the death certificate.  In the first section we have the name of the individual, the date of his death and the place of death, all primary information.  The rest of the information, however, was provided by an informant, in this case, Mrs. Christine Dennis (the daughter).  She was not there at her father’s birth, so she only has only secondary information about the events...the information could be right or wrong.  Notice that the name of Patrick’s mother was listed as Mary “Unobtainable”...Christine didn’t know her grandmother’s maiden name.  This document provides us with a clue to Patrick’s birth, 25 Oct 1889 in Ireland, but we need to find further evidence to confirm this information.

    The next section of the death certificate is the medical information.  In some states (including Florida) this information is only available to family members and you must request the “long form.”

This information is vital in creating a health history, so make note of the information you find.  Patrick’s doesn’t give a great deal of information as he died at home and it was completed by the medical examiner.  If he had died in the hospital, there would have been more information.

    The last section of this certificate contains information about the funeral home and the cemetery, both of which can be helpful if you don’t know where a person is buried. Although funeral home records are private records, you may be able to obtain additional information if you call or write them.  This section also contains the signature of the Registrar, as well as the seal if the record is certified.  You do not need a certified copy for genealogical purposes, but some states (including Connecticut) will only provide certified copies.

    To record the information from this death certificate, the first step is to create the source citation.

1. “Patrick J. Moughty,” Certificate of Death, Connecticut State Department of  Health, 8 May 1973, Greenwich, CT, State File Number 211 (1973), Certified Copy.

Each piece of information you use from this death certificate will have the above citation.  If you were putting this information into a  pedigree chart it might look like this.

    There is other information on the death certificate that doesn’t go on your pedigree chart, but rather on your family group sheet.  It tells us that Patrick was married at the time of his death to Beatrice King; that he was a naturalized US citizen; that he was a retired chauffeur from Electrolux Corporation; his address at the time of his death; that he was not a veteran and that his parents were Bernard Moughty and Mary (?).  He died of heart failure, he was buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Greenwich (which also tells me his religion was Roman Catholic).  Based on the above information, what would be your next research steps?

    Next week I’ll share where this document led me.

    Happy Hunting.


Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Analysis - A Process Map, Board for Certification of Genealogists, 2006.

© Donna M. Moughty 2007- 2018