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What Constitutes a Genealogical Source Record?

 
 

Under the current standards of genealogical proof, source citation and analysis are supreme. But what constitutes a genealogical source record? Some genealogy extremists hold to the unreasonable opinion that only government-issued records are reliable sources for information. These extremists obviously do not research African-American families.

The view of limiting the definition of what constitutes a reliable source is not faithful to the Genealogical Proof Standard. This standard does not judge records with a broad stroke; it merely provides a means and a method for judging the validity and reliability of a source, and evaluating the evidence held within a source.

There is a disheartening dearth of traditional records concerning African-American families. Deeds and probate records, for example, are less common, especially in the South, as racial prejudice often prevented the rise out of poverty and accumulation of property so common among families of other ethnicities. Because of this, two lessons can be learned. First, African-Americans must use the Genealogical Proof Standard. This methodology establishes a way to use and evaluate indirect evidence to form a conclusive proof. Second, any researcher of African-American genealogy must be willing to gather information from non-traditional sources.

In general, African-Americans have a much richer tradition of oral history, or family tradition, and this cannot be discounted as a source. Of course, as with any source whether a census enumeration, a death certificate, or a newspaper obituary, an oral history itself must be evaluated to determine its reliability. Where possible, facts contained in family traditions must be verified and corroborated with other records. The proverbial Indian princess story exists within the oral histories of many families, but only rarely do confirmable facts bear this out. This being said, it will be discovered that there will be many stories passed down for which no other record exists. These stories should still be preserved and evaluated on their own merits, and it should be noted that the accuracy of the story is unverified. This does not make the story false in and of itself, but should be presented strictly as what it is: unverified.

There are two steps in confirming the accuracy of every genealogical source record, regardless of its nature: evaluating the source itself, and corroborating with other records. These two segments will be explored in this column next week.
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