Sources rant

Amateur s: Find-a-grave is not a source.

A source is something you can describe which has a measurable set of characteristics. For example, an article in journal has a title, an author,  a date it was published, and it can be assigned one of the four semi-standard qualities of sourcing:

      • Primary source –  a document or object of known provenance serves as a record. e.g. an original page from a census.
      • Secondary source – a collation of data from primary sources, e.g. a report drawn from a census like an index of individuals in it.
      • Tertiary source – a collation of data from primary and/or secondary sources, especially where the criteria for membership in the set is unknown, also known as “questionable source”. E.g. a personal memoir, Tanguay’s Dictionnaire généalogique des Familles Canadiennes depuis la fondation de la colonie jusqu’à nos jours, or unpublished gene catalog such as 23 and Me.
      • Quaternary source – a collation of data known to contain inaccuracies or misinformation, derived from primary, secondary, and/or tertiary sources. While still potentially useful to guide research, no datum should be relied upon. Sometimes called “hearsay”, and “unreliable source”.

#Find-a-grave is a wonderful site, like , to give some ideas of what may be factual. It is not the purpose of that site to prove the accuracy of what it reports, but to serve as a clearinghouse of what is probably correct, drawing on the recollections and research of a non-homogenous body of contributors.

But as can easily be shown by pursuing any of the thousands (millions?) of memorials for people who passed away earlier than 1500, there is almost never a single shred of evidence presented. Not a picture of a headstone, a link to church records, or anything else. Even for the nobility for whom there is proof.

If your only evidence is an entry on Family Search which cites Find-a-grave, you have no evidence.

To give a concrete example, there is a memorial stone in Rindal cemetery, Marshall County, for a person. It lists their birth and death dates, and is in the family plot of the person’s parents. But the person is not buried there. Nor is the person buried in another plot in the cemetery where there is another memorial stone, the plot of their spouse. Instead the person is buried in a different state,  different cemetery, in the family plot with a second spouse. Find-a-grave used to list all three as different individuals; now they only list two of them.

Do yourself a favor and go back to the last ancestor for whom you do have good, provable evidence. Then learn more about them and the person(s) you think are their ancestors. Use things like Find-a-grave as a research guide. Look at the ‘facts’ critically. Is there a memorial stone? was it put there at the time of death, or added at some later time? Can you contact the burial ground sexton (or other equivalent person) to check the records?

Use what is there to find better sources. What kind of burial ground is it? On one occasion I discovered the cemetery was a Society of Friends (Quakers), and this led me immediately to their record book, where I could find a rich collection of mentions of family members and their births, migrations, marriages, and deaths.

The point of this rant is mostly: do not trust blindly the stuff you find on the internet! One well-trusted record I was just looking at had three sources for a birth date. The first source was a very old religious record of a baptism. The second source actually referred to the first source. The third source actually referred to the second source. But the record? clearly did not read the first source because it gave the baptism date as the birth date, but the baptism record reasonably clearly said the baby was born the previous day. A small error, but one so simple to fix by accurately checking sources that the entire ‘well-trusted’ description should be questioned.

…rant, rant, rant.