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Research MethodsBy Michael Hait


elcome to the Lowcountry Africana Resource Library! I am your host, Michael Hait, a professional genealogist and genealogical/historical author and instructor.

The goal of this Library will be to share information about tracing your Lowcountry African-American ancestors. The articles presented here will discuss general methods necessary for accurate research, and will use these methods to examine specific Lowcountry examples.

Please feel free to comment on any of the articles, and raise any questions that you might have. I hope that this will be an enlightening resource for you, and good luck with your research!


Pulling the Most Out of Your Records


The records we have located thus far provide both direct and indirect evidence that Robert S. Tarleton’s parents were Joseph and Sarah Tarleton. They were identified as such in the 1871 Freedman’s Bank record (see this earlier post for a full discussion) and lived next door to Robert in the 1870 census (see this earlier post for a full discussion).

Our tendency may be to jump back to this earlier generation and start working on Joseph and Sarah. However, this is the surest way to build ourselves an impassible brick wall.

We would first continue to gather information concerning Robert S. Tarleton. In this column, we have used only those sources available online. If this were your project, you would continue your research into Robert by consulting microfilmed and original records.

Microfilmed records are often available to be rented from the Family History Library through your local Family History Center. Information on these services is available at Click on the “Catalog” link, then search by “Place Name” for “South Carolina, Colleton” to see what county records are available, but don’t forget to also search for “South Carolina” itself, to catch all those state records. To find a Family History Center near you, click on the “FamilySearch Centers” link at the top of the FamilySearch homepage.

You can find original records in many locations, but you will want to check the records collections of the South Carolina Archives, the South Carolina Historical Society, and state universities around the state.

For the purposes of this example, though, we will not continue with the full research, but use the records we have already located.

One of the most difficult aspects of researching enslaved African American families is the use of indirect evidence. As defined in an earlier post, a record contains indirect evidence when its information implies the solution to your research problem, rather than providing the solution explicitly. Because freedmen and women appear in so few of the most common record groups in the period immediately following emancipation, it becomes necessary to glean as much information as possible from these records. This especially includes the identification and use of indirect evidence as clues to your ancestry.

To illustrate this process, we will define our research problem as the identification of Robert S. Tarleton’s former slave owner. None of the records that we have located provide this detail outright, but we can find clues in these records.

The two most useful records for this purpose are the 1870 federal census and the 1871 Freedman’s Bank deposit register entry. To see these records, with a detailed analysis, read the posts, “Evaluating A Record By Itself,” (for the Bank record), and “Corroborating Evidence” (for the census record).

So what evidence can we use from these records to help us identify Robert’s slave owner?

1. In 1870, Robert’s family was enumerated near Green Pond, in Blake Township, Colleton County, South Carolina. In 1871, his Bank record states his residence as Combahee, near Green Pond. The other records located agree nearly universally that he resided in this area (see the post “Gathering More Information – Researching from Your Research Plan” for details). This could be a clue as to the location of the plantation where Robert and his family were enslaved. The following modern map from the South Carolina Department of Transportation depicts the general area of Robert’s residence (you can click on the map to view a larger version).

Map of Colleton County, SC

2. It cannot be determined whether Robert’s father Joseph was possessed by the same owner as Robert. Under South Carolina law, enslaved children were considered the property of the mother’s owner. The father may have lived on a separate plantation, with the parents being involved in a cross-plantation, or “abroad,” marriage. Unfortunately, there is no way to know this for certain yet, so we must assume that Robert did not live with his wife and children (and perhaps we will be pleasantly surprised). The census record and Bank record do provide the names of Robert’s mother and siblings: Sarah, b. ca. 1807; Robert, b. ca. 1835; and Betsy [“Scott”], b. ca. 1842. Another brother, “Dandy,” is noted as having been “sold away.” Not only does this prompt us to look for bills of sale once we have identified the owner, but this note also implies that Robert and Betsy were not “sold away.” So we should be able to locate Sarah, Robert, and Betsy living together.

The next step would of course be to take the evidence we have, including the indirect evidence, and attempt to identify Robert’s slave owner. To do this, we may have to complete a survey of records. This will be explored in a future article.


Gathering More Information - Researching from Your Research Plan

In the last entry, we created a brief research plan for several record groups available online. Having completed the research, the information located, and citations for the sources searched, appear below in the research log.
Record Group
Searching for...
1880 Federal Census
Robert S. Tarleton household
SOURCE: 1880 U. S. Census, Colleton Co., S. C., pop sched, Blake Twp., ED 100, SD 2, pg. 19, dwg. 248, fam 250; digital image, ( : accessed 3 Dec 2010); citing FHL microfilm 1,255,226.
R. S. Tarlton, B, age 48, Farmer
Nanny [Tarlton], B, age 38, Wife
Nancy [Tarlton], B, age 14, Daughter
Joseph [Tarlton], B, age 12, Son
1900 Federal Census
Robert S. Tarleton household
SOURCE: 1900 U. S. Census, Colleton Co., S. C., pop sched, Blake Twp., ED 39, SD 1, sheet 4B, dwg. 89, fam 89; digital image, ( : accessed 3 Dec 2010); citing NARA microfilm T623, roll 1524.
Robert Tarleton, Head, B, b. Jan 1835, age 65, married 40 years, Farmer, owned home
Florence [Tarleton], Wife, B, b. Sep 1840, age 60 [sic], married 40 years, mother of 1 child, 1 child living
Sarah [Tarleton], Daughter, B, b. Nov 1870, age 29
[ibid], dwg. 90, fam 90
Joseph Tarleton, Head, B, b. May 1867, age 33, married 10 years, Farm Laborer
Mary [Tarleton], Wife, B, b. Jan 1869, age 31, married 10 years, mother of 2 children, 2 children living
Samuel [Tarleton], Son, B, b. Mar 1892, age 8
Frederick [Tarleton], Son, B, b. May 1895, age 5
1910 Federal Census
Robert S. Tarleton household
Not located – searched for “Tarleton” and phonetic/Soundex variants, in “Colleton County, South Carolina, USA” and “South Carolina, USA”
1920 Federal Census
Robert S. Tarleton household
Not located – searched for “Tarleton” and phonetic/Soundex variants, in “Colleton County, South Carolina, USA” and “South Carolina, USA”
1930 Federal Census
Robert S. Tarleton household
Not located – searched for “Tarleton” and phonetic/Soundex variants, in “Colleton County, South Carolina, USA” and “South Carolina, USA”
Lowcountry Africana
Colleton County Freedmen’s Bureau
Tarleton work contracts
SOURCE: “Freedmen's Labor Contracts, Colleton County, South Carolina, 1866,” digital transcripts w/ images, Lowcountry Africana ( : accessed 3 Dec 2010)
None located
SOURCE: “Freedmen's Bureau Field Office Reports Colleton County, SC,” digital images, Lowcountry Africana ( : accessed 3 Dec 2010); citing Records of the Field Offices, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1872, NARA Micropublication 1910 [sic], Reel 103.
Page-by-page search conducted. No “Tarleton” (or variants) records located.
South Carolina Archives
Online Indexes
References to Robert S. Tarleton
No references located using the index search engine.  The following record located using a "browse" search method.
SOURCE: “Militia Enrollments of Men Between The Ages of 30 and 45 for Colleton County,” digital image, South Carolina Archives & History, ( : accessed 3 Dec 2010); citing Series no. S192021, “Militia Enrollments of 1869,” Volume 9, pg. 10, entry no. 135, for Robert Toolton, Blake Township.

 Robert Toolton, age 31, Farmer, Blake Twp., colored

Google Books
References to Robert S. Tarleton
SOURCE: South Carolina General Assembly, Joint Investigating Committee on Public Frauds, Report of the Joint Investigating Committee on Public Frauds and Election of Hon. J.J. Patterson to the United States Senate...Part 3 (Columbia, S. C.: state printers, 1878), pg. 314; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 3 Dec 2010).
“Testimony of R. S. Tarleton.
October 3, 1873. R. S. Tarleton, sworn, says:
Lives in Colleton County ; was a member of the House for four years, commencing in 1870; received money from A. O. Jones, Clerk of the House and one of the Republican Printing Company, for his votes on printing Bills; recognizes his signature on check No. 195, February 27, 1873, for $100, signed by Jones. Jones sent me to Benedict at another lime and he gave me $100 in certificates of indebtedness.
SOURCE: ibid., pg. 632-633.
“Testimony of R. S. Tarleton.
October 3, 1877.
R. S. Tarleton, sworn, says :
Resides in Colleton County, Green Pond or Whitehall P. O. "Was a member of the Legislature of 1870-71, 1871-72, 1872-73, 1873-74, House of Representatives. Voted for the Blue Ridge Scrip Bill. I received $100 from John J. Patterson, over Hardy Solomon's bank, for it. Patterson said nothing to me about the Bill. H. G. Worthington told me that if I voted for the Bill that I would get something. We went into one door and came out at another at Solomon's. After the Bill was passed I went up to this place and John J. Patterson asked me my name. I told him R. S. Tarleton. He looked on his list and then counted me out the money ($100).
SOURCE: ibid., pg. 880.
“R. S. Tarleton, member from Colleton, testifies that Worthington told him that if he would vote for Patterson he would get something; that he voted for Patterson, and received in an envelope seventy-five dollars, and was told to go to Patterson's house; that he went accordingly with Abram Dannerly, of Orangeburg, and afterwards applied to Worthington at the Custom House, but failed to receive any more.
“Abram Dannerly, member from Orangeburg, testifies that Patterson promised to give him some money if he voted for him, and paid him fifty dollars at the bank. That Patterson said he had $50,000 or $60,000 to spend on his election. That subsequently Patterson fixed the amount for his vole and influence at $400; that Worthington, on the morning of the election, told him that he would see that he (Dannerly) got the $400. That after the election Worthington handed him twenty-five dollars, at which he was quite indignant. That he called with Representative Robert Tarleton, of Colleton, at Patterson's house to get the balance due, but that Patterson, after offering them liquor and cigars, said he was busy and would see them again.”


Note several aspects of this research log:
  • full source citations have been included;
  • where no information was located, the type of search/search terms were included;
  • abstracted information does not appear in quotation marks, but quoted information does.
The next step is to identify any clues to additional records or information that may be contained within the records located. This will be addressed in the next article.

Gathering More Information – The Next Step


Gathering More Information – The Next Step
As previously mentioned, the first part of the process comprising the Genealogical Proof Standard is to conduct a “reasonably exhaustive search” for all records relevant to your research problem.  We have already discovered and analyzed two records regarding our subject Robert S. Tarleton.  While these two records begin to build our body of knowledge about Robert S. Tarleton, it is clearly not enough.  The last post described steps to creating an effective research plan.
At this point, we already know several facts about Robert S. Tarleton, including his parents’ and siblings’ names.  So for the purposes of this research our goal will be simply to learn as much as we can about Robert S. Tarleton and his life as a free man following the Civil War.
Having investigated the records available for Colleton County, South Carolina, the following table shows a preliminary research plan:
Record Group
Searching for…
1880 Federal Census
Robert S. Tarleton household
1900 Federal Census
Robert S. Tarleton household
1910 Federal Census
Robert S. Tarleton household
1920 Federal Census
Robert S. Tarleton household
1930 Federal Census
Robert S. Tarleton household
Lowcountry Africana
Colleton County Freedmen’s Bureau
Tarleton work contracts
South Carolina Archives
Online Indexes
References to Robert S. Tarleton
Google Books
References to Robert S. Tarleton
The records chosen for this preliminary research plan are those available relatively easily online.  The next research plan created may be those available for rental on microfilm through our local Family History Center.  Then we would follow up with a list of original records held in South Carolina—either for a research trip ourselves or for hiring a professional researcher in South Carolina itself.
It is also important to note that, at this point, the final column will be blank.  You will record the results of your search in this column.  Be sure to include any important details or clues to other records, as well as a full source citation for each record located.  You cannot neglect this final step, for it will allow you to find the same records again, as well as any other researcher to follow up on your research.
In our next post, we will examine the results of the above searches to compile all of the information that we have collected so far.

Creating a Research Plan


In the previous two entries, we examined two records regarding Robert S. Tarleton. Though the information contained in both records have been analyzed according to the highest standards of evidence analysis current in genealogy, have we met the Genealogical Proof Standard, as described in the first entry in the Resource Library?

The first step in the Genealogical Proof Standard states that one must conduct a reasonably exhaustive search for all information that is or may be pertinent to the question for which you are seeking an answer. Has this been completed? Having only examined two records, we are far from conducting a reasonably exhaustive search. But how does one know when a reasonably exhaustive search has been achieved? Simply put, only experience in research will provide the insight to be sure. A well-crafted research plan, however, can help you to achieve this goal.

The first step in devising an effective research plan is to define a specific research problem. Many beginning genealogists jump into their research without ever clearly deciding what they would like to discover in their research. Of course, there is the vague notion of learning about ones forebears, but in order to effectively find an answer, one must first ask a question.

The following questions are examples of specific questions, relating to Robert S. Tarleton:

Who were Robert's parents?

When and where was Robert born?

When and where did Robert die?

The second step in creating a research plan involves research into the setting, i.e. the time and place. What were the laws during the time period that affected your ancestors? What records were created, and where are they now stored?

Continuing with Robert S. Tarleton as a case study, we will investigate Colleton Co., South Carolina, where Robert and his family lived. It is usually a good idea to start with a general research guide for the state. FamilySearch, sponsored by the Church of Latter-Day Saints, provides comprehensive research guides for all of the states and many other subjects. You can find all of their research guides on the FamilySearch Wiki. There are four research guides for South Carolina: South Carolina Federal Census Population Schedules, 1790 to 1920, South Carolina Historical Background, South Carolina Research Outline, and South Carolina Statewide Indexes and Collections. These are also available as PDF files to be printed with ease.

The next stop will be the state archives. The South Carolina Department of Archives and History, according to its website, is custodian of the non-current archives of state and local government. It has evolved from two agencies the legislature created in the late-nineteenth century, the Public Record Commission of South Carolina, which was appointed in 1891 to obtain copies of South Carolina records in the British Public Records Office, and the South Carolina Historical Commission, which was created in 1894 to maintain these copies and was then given wider record-keeping duties in 1905. On the website, you will find the SC ArchCat, where you can search for records in the Archives collection by keyword. Searching for the county name, Colleton County, brings forth a long list of county records available, including tax records, voter registrations, deeds, court records, etc. The Online Records Index contains abstracts of many key record sets held at SCDAH; indexed by topics, including: Will Transcripts (1782-1855); Records of Confederate Veterans (1909-1973); Plats for State Land Grants (1784-1868); Legislative Papers (1782-1866); Criminal Court Records (1769-1891); School Insurance Photographs (1935-1952); and National Register Properties. Some document images are also included in the Online Records Index.

There are also several great books to help provide some background information into the location. The Ancestry Red Book, Family Tree Resource Guide, and Evertons Handybook for Genealogists are great general resources, but the book Black Genesis by Dr. James Rose and Alice Eichholz, provides resources specific to African-American research for each state and many counties. There is no specific section for Colleton County, but the bibliography for the state does provide references to many books relating specifically to African-Americans in South Carolina.

You should also visit the website for the largest local university library, the local historical and genealogical societies, and the county USGenWeb site. Considering Colleton County, we would visit the following sites (for example):

South Carolina Genealogical Society Old St. Bartholomew Chapter

Colleton County Historical and Preservation Society

Colleton County, South Carolina History & Genealogy (SCGenWeb)

Now that you have defined a specific research focus, and learned more about the area and time period, you can bring the first steps together, in order to create your actual research plan. You will have to decide which available record groups are most likely to contain the information that you seek. If you are not sure what sort of information is contained in a certain record group, or do not know whether a record group will contain the information you seek, then you should err on the side of caution, and take a look at the records. This is part of the learning process, and will aid you in your future research plans. It is also a key part of conducting a reasonably exhaustive search.

The most effective research plan will consist of

(1) each repository that you will visit in the course of your research;

(2) each potentially relevant record group at each repository that you will search;

(3) what you will be searching for within each record group.

An easy way to record this information is by using four columns. The first three columns will contain the above aspects of your research plan; the last column will remain blank, so that you can record the results of each record search.

Once you have created a research plan, you will be able to use this plan to try to achieve your research goals, in an organized, systematic fashion. The creation of such a research plan, you are less likely to miss possibly vital information held in obscure records, and more likely to find success in your research goals.

Corroborating Evidence

In the previous entry of this column, we examined the Freedmans Bank deposit slip for an African-American man named Robert S. Tarleton. To gather more information on this person, we will examine the federal census records.

The Constitution of the United States of America provided for a decennial census, in order to count the population. Beginning in 1790, a federal census was taken every ten years, but identified only free citizens; enslaved African-Americans were counted by number only. The 1870 census was the first to contain the names of all African-Americans, being the first after the abolition of slavery. The information contained in this record group was supposed to reflect the situation on Census Day, which was 1 June 1870, even though the survey may not have been conducted on that date.

We will examine the 1870 federal census record in order to corroborate the information contained within the Freedmans Bank record, and gather any additional information that it may contain.

Here is the entry for Robert S. Tarleton in the 1870 census:

[SOURCE: 1870 U. S. Census, Colleton Co., South Carolina, population schedule, Blake Township, Green Pond post office, pg. 17, pg. 9 [stamped], dwelling 163, family 183, Robert Tarleton household; digital image, ( : accessed 20 Oct 2009); citing NARA microfilm publication M593, roll 1492.]

First, we must consider this source on its own merits, just as we did previously with the Bank record.

Is this source Original or Derivative? This is an image copy of the original federal copy of the census enumeration.

Does the source contain Primary or Secondary Information? Unfortunately, the informant is not identified on any of the households enumerated in the federal census. While the ideal situation was for the enumerator to interview the head of household, it was common for other members of the household, or even neighbors, to provide the information. The determination of the information as primary or secondary is therefore impossible. For this reason, a federal census records accuracy can only be determined through corroboration by other sources.

The census record contains the following facts:

  • The census taker, John K. Terry, visited the Tarleton household on 15 August 1870.
  • Robert Tarleton was a 35-year-old mulatto farmer, living near the Green Pond post office in Blake Township, Colleton County, South Carolina. This age implies a birthdate of ca. 1835.
  • Robert did not own any real estate, but owned personal property valued at $175. He was born in South Carolina.
  • Robert could read and write.
  • The other members of his household were Nanny, 30 years old (born ca. 1840), female mulatto; Nancy, 4 years old (born ca. 1866), female mulatto; and Joseph, 2 years old (born ca. 1868), male mulatto. No relationships are provided in this census. Also living with the family was one Daniel Barnwell, a 12-year-old male mulatto (born ca. 1858). All of these members of the household were reportedly born in South Carolina.
  • Enumerated next to the Robert Tarleton household was the Joseph Tarleton household. Joseph Tarleton was a 63-year-old mulatto laborer, implying a birth date of ca. 1807. Living with Joseph Tarleton was one Sarah Tarleton, a 63-year-old black female, born ca. 1807. Both Joseph and Sarah were reportedly born in South Carolina. The census does not state a relationship between the two. Joseph did not own any real or personal property.
  • Several dwellings after the Robert Tarleton household, one Betsey Scott, a 28-year-old female mulatto, lives in the household of one Benjamin Ganett[?], a 35-year-old black male.

We can now compare the facts from this record with those of the Freedmans Bank record:

1870 U. S. Census

Freedmans Bank deposit

(dated 21 Nov 1871)

Residence of Robert Tarletown: Green Pond p.o., Blake Township, Colleton Co., South Carolina

Residence of Robert S. Tarleton: Combahee, near Green Pond, South Carolina

Robert Tarleton born ca. 1835, South Carolina

Robert Tarleton born ca. August 1835, South Santee, South Carolina

Occupation: farmer

Occupation: preacher of African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church

In household, Nanny Tarleton, age 30 (no relationship stated)

Wife Nanny

In household, children Nancy, age 4, and Joseph, age 2 (no relationships stated)

Children Nancy, Joseph, and Sophia, who died in 1865

Neighbors Joseph and Sarah Tarleton (no relationships stated)

Parents Joseph Tarleton and Sarah Tarleton, who died 29 July 1871

Neighbor Betsey Scott (no relationship stated)

Sibling Betsy Scott

Both records clearly agree on all facts, with the possible exception of Roberts occupation. His description as a farmer in the 1870 census as opposed to a preacher as in the 1871 Bank record can mean one of two things: either he became a preacher after the 1870 census visit, or he was both a farmer and a preacher. Being a preacher and a farmer were not necessarily mutually exclusive occupations during this time period and geographic area. In fact, it was quite common that nearly all men were considered farmers, as they fed their families from the sweat of their own brow.

The census record adds further details concerning the Roberts family, not contained in the Freedmans Bank record. On the other hand, the Bank record reports relationships not contained within the census record. The two records viewed together provide a portrait of Robert S. Tarleton and his family between 1870 and 1871.

We will examine additional records for Robert and his family in the future.

Evaluating A Record By Itself

Evaluating A Record By Itself
In the last article, we discussed the various terms and considerations necessary to properly evaluate source records.  Here we will apply this process to a record relating to the Lowcountry.
Document Images: The copyright for the document images presented here resides with The Generations Network, Inc. The images are used here under terms of the Limited Use License. They may not be presented elsewhere except under the terms of the Limited Use License, or by special permission of The Generations Network, Inc.
Original Document Source: Registers of Depositors in Branches of the Freedmen's Savings and Trust, 1865-1874, NARA Micropublication M816, 27 Rolls
Is this source Original or Derivative? This is an image copy of the original deposit slip.

Does the source contain Primary or Secondary Information? The signature at the bottom of the slip is (1) not a mark but an actual signature, and (2) not in the same hand as the rest of the handwriting, indicating that it was actually signed by Robert himself. Furthermore, Roberts occupation is listed as Preacher of AME Church. These two facts indicate that Robert was likely literate, and served as the informant of this record himself. This makes all of the information more or less primary.

The following facts are contained within this record:

  • The record was created on 21 November 1871. On this date, Robert S. Tarleton lived in Combahee, near Green Pond, South Carolina.
  • Robert S. Tarleton was born and raised (brought up) in South Santee, South Carolina.
  • Robert S. Tarleton was aged 36 years, as of August 1871. This implies a birthdate of ca. August 1835.
  • On 21 November 1871, Robert S. Tarleton was a preacher of an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.
  • On 21 November 1871, Robert S. Tarletons wife was named Nanny.
  • Robert S. Tarleton had three children: Nancy, Joseph, and Sophia, who died in 1865. Their mother is not identified but may be his wife Nanny.
  • Robert S. Tarletons parents were Joseph Tarleton and Sarah Tarleton, who died 29 July 1871.
  • Robert S. Tarleton had two siblings: Dandy, who was sold, and Betsy Scott.
  • James Maxwell came with Robert S. Tarleton, presumably to the bank at the time of this initial deposit.

The next step will be to determine an answer to the question: how reliable are these facts?

The most reliable facts in themselves are those most contemporary to the creation of this record: residence, occupation, wife, and children. We were able to determine that Robert S. Tarleton himself was the informant for this record, and this lends credibility to all of the remaining facts.

What we do not know is whether Roberts parents were still living at the time of the creation of this record. The identities of his parents as reported may be the only potentially questionable fact, if it cannot be proven that Robert knew his parents, due to the disruption of his family by slavery. But again, this record does not state whether Robert was ever enslaved, or born free. These questions will require additional research in other records to find an answer.

Once we have fully evaluated this record by itself, we will have to continue with our search to locate additional records to corroborate and elaborate on the facts contained here. This will be the subject of the next article.

Evaluating a Source Record

Evaluating a Source Record
One important aspect of the Genealogical Proof Standard is its focus on the principles of sound record analysis. Using these principles, you will be able to distinguish between different types of records, information, and evidence and use these distinctions, together with other factors, to determine the reliability of your facts.

Types of Records

There are two types of record, according to the Genealogical Proof Standard: original and derivative. These distinctions refer only to the form of the record, not to any of the information contained within it.

Before discussing the types of record, I would like to reiterate that the term record refers to any source, whether written or verbal. An interview with your grandmother is as much a source record as a marriage license or probate file.

An original record is, in short, a record that provides information directly from the source, without first appearing elsewhere in that form. For example, a tombstone, a newspaper obituary, and a death certificate are all original records. Closely akin to original records are image copies. Image copies include microfilmed books, photographs of tombstones, or digital census records. When the image is poor (as often occurs with printouts from older microfilmed records), the original record should be consulted. However, when the image is a high quality reproduction of the original, it can be used as a substitute for the original in many cases. [Please note that I do qualify this last statement. Even high quality image copies can have their flaws, and original records should be consulted as often as possible.]

A derivative record is a record that provides information that was originally produced elsewhere. For example, a published (or unpublished) book of abstracts, a transcribed list of gravestones, and an online census index are all derivative records.

Original records are inherently superior to derivative records due to the potential for error. Words can be misinterpreted, misspelled, or omitted, possibly changing the tone and information presented within the record.

One particularly negative example of this potential, bearing directly on African-American genealogists, is the tendency of abstracters and transcribers from previous generations to omit all mention of free persons of color or slaves in various record books. One simply cannot assume, when using a published book of record abstracts, that all records appear; some may have been omitted.

Not so long ago, original records, as described above, were called primary records, and derivative records were called secondary records. Records and information were seen as interchangeable. A distinction between these now exists.

Types of Information

Information refers to the content of a record.

Primary information is all content reported by a direct participant in, or eyewitness to, the event being reported.

Secondary information is all content reported by someone who was not a direct participant in, or eyewitness to, the event being reported.

A single record can contain both primary and secondary information. For example, modern death certificates contain the date and place of death, as well as the date and place of birth, and usually the parents names. In this case, the death information would be considered primary, and the birth information would be considered secondary. Note that this record is an original record, yet the information it provides varies in reliability. Only in rare cases will the informant to a death certificate have direct knowledge of the deceaseds birth.

Primary information is generally preferable to secondary information, but there are other factors which may affect this preference.

Identify the Informant

Key to determining whether information is primary or secondary is identifying the informant, or source of the information. In many records, the informant is identified by name (and often relationship), but in other records he/she may be unknown.

Once you know the informant, you must determine whether or not this person was likely to have had first-hand knowledge of the event being reported. This will help you qualify the information as primary or secondary.

When the informant is unknown, it is impossible to know whether the information is primary or secondary, and should thus be considered secondary at best.

You must evaluate the informants knowledge of the events being reported using four criteria: (1) how close in time and place to the event the record was created; (2) the level involvement of the informant; (3) the age and sanity of the informant, and the extent of his or her understanding of the events details and significance; and (4) any bias on the part of the informant that may have affected his or her account.

Types of Evidence

Records contain information, and this information then constitutes evidence. Evidence, in general, is how information relates to your research problem. The two kinds of evidence are direct and indirect.

A record contains direct evidence if it specifically states the answer to a specific question. A record contains indirect evidence if the answer, or a clue to the answer, is implied, rather than stated outright.

These concepts may be easier to understand using a pair of examples:

A marriage certificate contains direct evidence of the facts surrounding the marriage of a couple, including the date, place, and full names of both parties.

A birth certificate contains direct evidence of the facts surrounding the birth of a child, including the date, place, and names of both parents. The same birth certificate also contains indirect evidence of the marriage of the parents.

Neither direct evidence nor indirect evidence is inherently more accurate or reliable in searching for the true answer to your research question. For example, a pension application may contain direct evidence of the birth of a pensioner. However, the applicant may have moved his birth date backward in order to appear older (for financial gain), so another record that only provides indirect evidence of the fact may actually provide more accurate information.

The Genealogical Proof Standard provides a very thorough method to evaluating genealogical source records. By using these principles of analysis, you can obtain the highest level of accuracy in your research goals, and be able to solve almost every problem you encounter.

In the next article, we will explore these principles using a sample record from the Lowcountry.

For More Information

Almost all of the above principles have been derived from the book The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual: Millennium Edition, highly recommended to all genealogists. More information can be found at the Board for Certification of Genealogists website.


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.

What Is The Genealogical Proof Standard?

What Is The Genealogical Proof Standard?

(This article first appeared in the African-American Genealogy Examiner column on 15 May 2009.)

Briefly stated, the GPS raises modern genealogy research to the level of other academic disciplines. Ushered in and promoted by professional genealogists like Christine Rose and Elizabeth Shown Mills and organizations like the National Genealogical Society and the Board for the Certification of Genealogists, the GPS provides an outline for sound and responsible genealogical research. By subscribing to its standards, you can ensure that your research will be as accurate as possible.

The GPS recognizes, as you will discover in your own research, that genealogy research often leaves unanswered, and unfortunately unanswerable, questions. Not every fact can be proven with a simple statement on a document. However, through the use of the GPS, and indeed through practice, you can be sure that your conclusions are as close as possible to the truth.

The GPS, as outlined in Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case by Christine Rose (San Jose, Calif.: CR Publications, 2005), consists of five steps:

1. Conduct a reasonably exhaustive search for all information that is or may be pertinent to the question for which you are seeking an answer.

2. Completely and accurately cite every source of information discovered in this search.

3. Analyze and correlate the collected information to assess its quality as evidence.

4. Resolve any conflicts caused by contradictory items of evidence or information contrary to your conclusion.

5. Arrive at a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion [emphasis added].

The Genealogical Proof Standard, which should always be used in your research, is particularly important for African-American research. Due to the political and economic status of African-Americans throughout American history, certain otherwise-common records are often sparse. The GPS provides a method for sound evaluation of records and information, and will allow you to come to the best possible conclusions based on the available information.

Further Reading

For more information, please consult the following books:

Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case

by Christine Rose

The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual

by the Board of Certification of Genealogists

Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace

by Elizabeth Shown Mills

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