Writing Better "I Know" Reason Statements

Writing Reason Statements on FamilySearch
The feedback to my post "Fill in the Box! Please" has been tremendous. Many experienced genealogists fully agree about the importance of the FamilySearch "Reason to Attach Source" box. Budding family historians say, "Sure, but will you teach me how to write a good reason statement?"

Yes, I will do my best.


Hopefully, This will add to the conversation in the comments section below or on my Facebook Page, Twitter Account,  Google+ Page. My only request is that we go slowly, bit by bit as we cover some of the most common situations. Then we can share some challenging source events.

Better "I know" statements 

While helping newbies work on their trees, they often have information or heard information about their ancestors. They want to fill in a "Reason to Attach Source" box with a statement like this:
  • "Because I know."
  • "This is my grandmother."
  • "My aunt, the genealogist, said this is right."
There are other variations of these "I know" statements. What others would you add to the list?

"I know" statements are not entirely invalid. They can actually be better than a primary document. 

Here's a few situations where "I know" are valid statements:
  • For a birth mother, they would know the dates each of their children were born, because the woman gave birth to said children. They would also be the source of miscarriages and still births, which weren't always recorded in a government document.
  • If you personally attended a funeral and then the burial of an ancestor, you know when the date and location of their burial.
  • If you personally watched a loved one take their last breath, you know the date and place where they died. 
So, "I know" statements are actually valid sources as you witnessed the event. These "I know" statements would also be valid if an ancestor tells you the facts for what they attended. 

Now, there are other times when "I know" will be the only source of information, or the source of better information than a government record. 

Believe it or not, there are numerous cultures that do not have written documentation of birth, marriage, death, etc. Thus, the oral tradition is the only source. 

Other nations had their official documents destroyed when one government rose to power, especially when they ousted royalty. Many royal descendants fled into exile and would burn anything connecting them to their ancestors. Thus, the oral tradition would be the only thing available. 

Sometimes documents are altered, especially when someone from one country immigrates to another. Let's take a fictional man named Persuth, who is based on an actual individual. When he immigrated to America, he had no official documentation of his birth date. His father felt it would be more advantageous for Persuth (and his siblings) to have birth dates two years younger than their actual age. So, let's say Persuth was actually born in 1942, his father told the American officials that his birth date was in 1944. From that point forward, Persuth's primary source documents would have the 1944 birth date. Persuth knew his actual birth year, despite what records say. 

Three Tips to Better "I know" Statements

Surely you'll think of other situations when "I know" statements are the source. So, how would you craft a strong reason statement.  Here are a few tips:
  1. Identify the "I"

    Instead of saying, "I know" or "I was told"; put an actual name on the statement.

    "Devon Lee knows that Penny Geiszler was buried on December 14, 2012 in Houston, Harris County, Texas."

    "Margie Geiszler Wasson told Devon Lee that her husband Harry Dale Wasson was a member of the Sea Bees during World War II."


    The statements identify who 'knows' the information. The first is a personal statement of my knowledge and the second is a record of second hand knowledge that I acquired from my great aunt Margie.
  2. Identify the "Why"

    Next add the why of the statement from above. Why do I know the things I know? Why does the person know what they know?

    "Devon Lee was in attendance of the funeral and subsequent burial of her mother Penny Geiszler  on December 14, 2012 in Houston, Harris County, Texas. The funeral was on Thursday evening December 13 and the burial was the morning of the 14th in a private ceremony." 

    This "I know" statement tells you that I personally witnessed the event and my relationship to the person for which the event occurred. I'll admit that it feels weird to write about my witness in third person, but I don't want to leave someone else guessing as to who the "I" in the statement is in the future.

    "Margie Geiszler Wasson told Devon Lee, via a tape recording in 2008, that her husband Harry Dale Wasson was a member of the Sea Bees during World War II. The voice recording was set to Devon in response to questions about Margie's life. The recording was later transcribed by Devon Lee."


    It's critical that we document how we received second hand information. My great aunt Margie sent me responses to questions that I mailed to her. A friend visited his native home land and spoke to relatives that shared family facts that have no documents. His statement would relate that he interviewed in person the particular individuals and the date of the visit.
  3. Identify the "Why Trust"

    The next part of the statement should explain why anyone should trust the "I know" Statement. There are a variety of possibilities here, and this is where you would explain the situations such as Persuth not having original documentation. This is where my friend's cultural oral tradition should be trusted, as it's the only thing available. This is where I could reference that an aunt is the family calendar. If you want to know the birth, marriage, and death dates for family members, you ask her. She has a strong memory of such things. This could also mention documentation that you have that you referenced. Perhaps there was a funeral program (even if you created it) that helps you remember dates, times, and places.

    "Devon Lee was in attendance of the funeral and subsequent burial of her mother Penny Geiszler  on December 14, 2012 in Houston, Harris County, Texas. The funeral was on Thursday evening December 13 and the burial was the morning of the 14th in a private ceremony. Devon arranged for the two services and has a program from the event."

    Why should you trust Devon's witness? Because she made the funeral arrangements and has a document (which she created) in her possession.

    "Margie Geiszler Wasson told Devon Lee, via a tape recording in 2008, that her husband Harry Dale Wasson was a member of the Sea Bees during World War II. The voice recording was set to Devon in response to questions about Margie's life. The recording was later transcribed by Devon Lee. Margie knew of Harry's service as she exchanged letters with him throughout his service and married him upon his return from service."

    This second one takes the extra step to not only say why Devon Lee knows the information, (it was in a voice recording from Margie) but why Margie knows the information. Margie was Harry's spouse and she exchanged letters with him during the war. 

To sum up, "I know" statements aren't bad in their terms of validity. Such statements improve when they are explained. You explain the "I know" (or the "I was told" variation).

Take time to:
  1. Explain the "I"
  2. Explain the "Why" 
  3. Explain the "Why Trust"
Surely there are many who are like I was in my Literature class saying, "Do I really have to write all of that?"

The simple answer is, "Yes, please."



Let's Keep the Discussion Going:

In the comments below, let's discuss:
  • What would you add to the "I know" or "I was told" statements?
  • What the situations are you unsure of how to explain?
  • What situation would you like explained next?

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