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02 March 2017

Beginner Basics: What Makes a Good Source?

What is a good genealogy source


Family Trees should be based on PROOF of relationships. Otherwise, I could claim I was related to anyone I wanted - a king, a president, a famous singer, or even you! You will find proof in sources, but not all sources are created equal. What makes a good source?



A good source is an original document, recorded as close to the time of an event by the individuals who witness said even first hand.

Family trees, whether printed or hand-drawn, are sources, but not hard proof of lineage. Why? Because the family tree is not recorded as close to the events as possible by first-hand witnesses.  So these trees have clues to your genealogy but are not proof.  However, sometimes these trees are the only record of children who died in infancy or at birth. Family trees have value but do not stand alone as a good source.

On the other hand, a marriage record is an excellent source. Original marriage records name the bride, groom, the date they were married, and a location. Some marriage records are gold mines with names of parents, occupations, current residence and more. Marriage licenses are often obtained by the couple seeking marriage and then certified by the ministers who perform the ceremony. Now, errors do occur in these records, but original marriage records from churches or government archives provide strong evidence of relationships.

Let's look at some other examples of original documents:

  • Birth records
  • Death records
  • Census records
  • Military Records
  • Gravestones 
  • Naturalization Documents
  • Wills

Be careful that you evaluate all available documents to determine the most accurate facts as the sources do not always agree. But give more weight to a birth date on a birth record versus a birth date on a death record because the birth record occurred closer to the actual event than a death record.

Some sources are confused with original sources; these include indexes to a record collection and published family histories. You'll find many indexes online and will immediately recognize them as indexes because they do not link to an original image. Many indexes are as accurate as the original, but mistakes often appear in the index, or there are more details in the original record. Seek after the original image whenever possible. With published family histories, they are compilations of facts. Many are accurate, but they are not the original, primary source. Follow the adage: "Trust but Verify" when referencing these accounts.

Please remember that many sources are off-line. In fact, many are in your homes or the homes of your relatives. Examples could be funeral programs, birth announcements, diplomas, baby books, and more.

In short, a good source is an original document made by first-hand witnesses. Use them! Otherwise, you might find yourself related to THOR!

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Have I missed anything? Do you still have questions about the sources and documents you'll use in family history? Leave a question or comment below, and we will feature them in an upcoming video or blog post.

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