Archive for November 16th, 2009

November 16, 2009

An Island Unto Itself

A few months ago, I was searching the Internet for information on a certain family I was researching for a friend. I came across an interesting article on a related family in which the author attempted to prove a lineage based almost solely on federal census records from 1830 through 1850, and on one man’s date of birth, source not given.

It was evident from the author’s presentation that he did not understand how to use the federal census records from that time period. No census from 1790 through 1870 provides direct proof of a relationship; the 1880 U.S. census was the first to provide relationship indicators, and then only to the head of the household. The population schedules from 1850 through 1870 suggest relationships, but they do not prove them. The early federal censuses do not even suggest relationships; they are merely an enumeration of the number and ages of persons living within a household at a certain time.

A better argument could have been made if the author had used several record sets in tandem with one another. There was no mention in this “proof” argument, for instance, of probate records, although they are one of the more obvious and well-known record sets, even amongst beginning genealogists. Nor was any mention made of a search through local land records, which often corroborate or suggest relationships not evident in other contemporary documents. And so forth. For the area and time period in question, there are several record sets other than federal censuses this researcher could have used to provide better support for his argument, but these were all neglected.

This leads me to the point of this post, via a paraphrased truism: No record (or record set) is an island unto itself. Whenever possible, we should always seek further information to corroborate relationships, especially where records might provide indirect evidence but no concrete “proof”. Even where such proof is directly stated, we should examine other records when and where ever possible in order to provide the most well-rounded and solid argument we can based on the most exhaustive search possible.

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