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Issues in using documentary evidence

Using primary documents: evaluation of data, clues within documents and their strengths and weaknesses
Primary documents have much direct evidence within them which has to do with the actual event that they relate to. For example, a birth date and place on a birth certificate. However, they also usually have a great deal of indirect data, which can be used as evidence of events and relationships. This can include names of witnesses on marriage records, people living next door with the same name, or from the same place of origin on census records, informants of events, and so on.
They can also include tidbits, such as a census records showing that someone’s a widow, thus telling you that their husband has died, and that you should then be able to find a death certificate sometime prior to the date of the census. Documents can also be said to contain negative evidence. That is, if you can’t find someone on a census, then that absence may mean that they have died, have emigrated to another country, or have just moved out of the family home and set up a household on their own. This lack of evidence is a clue to look elsewhere for someone. Primary documents can contain clues to other documents you should look at.
This is an 1881 Scottish census document showing a family, the Waterstons, with some members born in Scotland and some in the USA, with their age at the last birthday being shown. So if we subtract this age from the year the census was taken, this gives us a possible range of birth years for each person, and thus a guideline for when to look for birth records. This census document isn’t stating where exactly in the US these people were born, but later censuses might do that, which could then tell us where in the US they were from.
So if we look at the years the children were born, we need to think about whether or not they would have shown up in the 1870 US Census. And the answer is probably not, as the first child on the list is 10 years of age, giving a possible year of birth of 1871. Could Sarah and William, the head of the household and his wife, have been married in 1870, and thus be on the US census together in that year? As the following children were born in the US, aside from the last one who was born in 1879 or 1880 who was born in Scotland, it’s likely that the family migrated to Scotland sometime between 1874 and 1879.
Another thing to think about here is where did William and Sarah meet and marry? Was it in Scotland or the US? And given that Sarah was probably no more than 21 when they married and she was born in the US, it’s more likely that William emigrated to the US, met her there, married, and then they moved to Scotland in the mid-to-late 1870s. It’s possible that Sarah travelled with her family or on her own to Scotland as a teenager or, in their early 20s, she and William met and then they emigrated back to the US, but it’s much more unlikely. However, all options need to be checked in the records.
Here are William and Sarah on the 1870 US federal census living in Missouri. Sarah’s birthplace is shown as MO, which stands for Missouri, and William’s as Scotland. And something to note here is that while her age tallies with that on the 1881 Scottish census, where she is shown as 32, William is shown here on the 1870 census as aged 22, which is an eight-year difference from the Scottish census where he’s down as 40 years of age. Now, this could be a simple mistake on either census, but it needs to be cleared up. And finding other census years, a marriage certificate, or a birth record for William could all help with this.
And note that there’s a slight difference in the surname here as well– Waterson instead of Waterston, as in the Scottish census. And you’ll see that below their record, there’s another family with a surname of Waterson living next door, and the head of the household, John, was also born in Scotland. So could he and William be brothers or cousins? Now this example from a set of English census records is a vivid reminder that people were often economical with the truth on records. This mother, in this example, has only aged six years from one census to the other, and the daughter’s not aged at all, which is a pretty nice trick indeed.
You may also come across people claiming to be widowers or widows on marriage certificates, when they’re actually still married to a living person, and so on. Now, this type of thing can make it hard to find the records in the first place. But it can also be difficult to be sure you have the right person. And more importantly, this type of dishonesty could lead you to put down incorrect information on your family tree. So the moral here overall is to take the information given on records with a large grain of salt. Compare information found against other records, and remember to give lots of leeway on birth dates when searching census records.

This video will cover the depth of direct and indirect information documents can provide and consider the evaluation of data and clues within documents.

We’ll also explore potential problems with using documents and the evidence they provide.

The documents featured in this video are available in the ‘Downloads’ section below.

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Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree

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