This article compiles a useful guide of genealogical definitions and methods used in research.

General definitions[]

  • Genealogy - the study of family history.
  • Genealogist - one who studies family hostory.

A patronymic is a form of a surname derived from a fathers given name. For example, If Johann had a son "Jacob", that son would be known as "Jacob Johann's son" or more simply "Jacob Johannson". When Jacob Johannson had a son "Herman" that son would be known as "Herman Jacob's son" or simply "Herman Jacobson". At some moment in time different cultures adopted the practice of using a surname to reflect parantage, with the patronymic becoming "fixed" as a surname. In some cultures a variant of this practice was used with daughters names. If Jacob Johannson had a daughter "Brita" she would be known as Brita Jacob's Dotter". On occassion, these 'dotter' names were also perpetuated as a surname. Thus if Brita Jacob's Dotter had a son "Carl", he might be known as "Carl Britasdotter". Also known as Patronym a term often used by genealogists, but is undefined in the Oxford Dictionary of English (qv).

Levels of Confidence[]

  • Possible----refers to the level of confidence that one has concerning a genealogical fact. In this case, it suggests that the "fact" is not contradicted by other known and accepted facts. For example, if a John Smith was born in 1850 it is possible that he is the child of Robert Smith and Ann Jones, who were married in 1849. It is not possible that he was the child of Ann Jones who was born in 1748
  • Plausible---refers to the level of confidence that one has concerning a genealogical fact. In this case, it suggests that the "fact" is consistent with the currently available information, is not refuted by any known and accepted data, and, in general, would "make sense" if it were indeed correct. Plausible data, however, does not rise to the level where it can be clearly accepted as proven. That is, while it doesn't conflict with any other accepted data, it is neither confirmed by any direct primary source, nor does the available data surrounding it sufficient to consider it probably true. As an example of "plausible data", if John Smith were born in 1850 in the town of Roanoke, VA, it would be both possible and plausible that he could be the child of Robert Smith and Ann Jones, who were married in 1849 in Roanoke, VA. This datum would not rise to the level of "probable" because there might be more than one Smith family in Roanoke, VA in 1850 who could be his parents.
  • Probable---refers to the level of confidence that one has concerning a genealogical fact. In this case, it suggests that the fact is more likely true than not, but that there is no direct primary source that can be cited to show that it is true. Usually, things that reach the level of "probably true" have multiple lines of evidence independently pointing to their accuracy. No given line is sufficient by itself to raise the data above the level of "plausible", but taken together, the various lines of evidence suggest that it is in fact "probable". For example, if there were documentary evidence that
  • John Smith was born in Roanoke in 1850,
  • Robert and Ann Smith were married in Roanoke in 1849,
  • Robert and Ann Smith appear in the 1850 census in Roanoke with no children,
  • John's mother's given name was Ann,
  • That there was only one Smith couple in Roanoke in 1850

It might be concluded that John's parents were probably Robert and Ann Smith, and that John was born after the census had been taken. However, the point might not be accepted as proven, because the evidence for the connection is largely circumstantial.

  • Proven---refers to refers to the level of confidence that one has concerning a genealogical fact. In this case, it suggests that the fact is based on direct primary sources, such as a bible record, that demonstrate to a reasonable person that the fact is true. For example, if a family bible for Robert and Ann Smith showed that their son John was born in December of 1850, in Roanoke, most reasonable people would probably conclude that Robert and Ann were indeed the parents of "our" John Smith. However, depending on the extent of the effort made to gather comprehensive evidence to support this conclusion, and the additional evidence that could be mustered to support it, this might still not reach the level of the BCG Standards of Proof (See below).

Types of Sources[]

This section provides a distinction between two broad categories of source material and documents: Primary Sources, and Secondary Sources. The distinction between primary and secondary sources is critical in genealogy. A conclusion based on primary sources is fundamentally more sound than a concusion based on secondary sources. The definitions given here are simplifications, and should be used with some caution.

  • Primary Sources---A primary source or record is an original document more or less contemporary with the events it refers to. A birth certificate, marriage record, gravestone, court record, contemporary letter would usually be considered to be a primary record. The key characteristic of a primary record is that it represents testimony of someone who had direct first hand knowledge of the events described. What is not included in category of "primary sources" are documents compiled long after the events by persons who could not be considered eyewitnesses. Some elements of death certificates are marginal in this respect: if the only available relative of a deceased person was a nephew, he might, for example, give an incorrect answer to the question about the deceased's father's occupation.
A possible exception to this are compilations of original records, in the form of extracts, or in some cases verbatim transcripts. A compilation of court records, marriage records, and the like are included in this category. Such documents are properly considered to be secondary sources as there is the possibility of information loss occurring in the transcription process. As a result, these sources are less reliable than true primary sources. Practically speaking, most genealogists can not (or do not) readily access the original source material on which such compilations are based, and so transcriptions of primary source material are often treated as if they were themselves primary sources.
  • Secondary Sources - for present purposes a secondary source or record is a document that is not contemporary with the events that it describes. The author can not be described as being an eyewitnesss to the events. Technically, this includes verbatim extracts and compilations based on primary documents, but in practice, such sources are often treated as primary records. (Some caution should be exercized when dealing with such records, as they may contain transcription errors of a substantive nature). Examples of a secondary sources would include: County Histories, Family Genealogies, newspaper articles about events that occurred at some time in the relatively distant past, etc. The authors of such works may be exactly right about what they describe, but they do not have this information based on their direct experience with the events of concern. The author's may be basing their interpretation on primary sources, but their presentation is ultimately an analysis. That is, it may describe what they think occurred, but they do not know of their own personal knowledge that the events concerned are in fact correctly described. A secondary source is fundamentally interpretative in nature, and interpretation can be in error.
  • Tertiary Sources - Tertiary source are sometimes described as a mixture of both primary and secondary sources. The wikipedia definition is "A tertiary source is a selection, distillation, summary or compilation of primary sources, secondary sources, or both...Typical instances of tertiary sources are bibliographies, library catalogs, directories, reading lists and survey articles. Encyclopedias and textbooks are examples of materials that typically embrace both secondary and tertiary sources, presenting on the one hand commentary and analysis, while on the other attempting to provide a synoptic overview of the material available on the topic."

Verification and Validation[]

Standards of Proof[]

The Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG) established the following standards for genealogical research:

1. Reasonably exhaustive search

  • Assumes examination of a wide range of high quality sources
  • Minimizes the probability that undiscovered evidence will overturn a too-hasty conclusion

2. Complete and accurate citation of sources

  • Demonstrates the extent of the search and the quality of the sources
  • Allows others to replicate the steps taken to reach the conclusion. (Inability to replicate the research casts doubt on the conclusion.)

3. Analysis and correlation of the collected information

  • Facilitates sound interpretation of the data contributed by each source
  • Ensures that the conclusion reflects all the evidence

4. Resolution of conflicting evidence

  • Substantiates the conclusion's credibility. (If conflicting evidence is not resolved, a credible conclusion is not possible.)

5. Soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion

  • Eliminates the possibility that the conclusion is based on bias, preconception, or inadequate appreciation of the evidence
  • Explains how the evidence led to the conclusion

Additional information is available at BCG Site

Reference Styles[]

  • Fide - term taken from the Latin "fide", meaning "by, with, or from faith"; the term is used in the context of references to mean "taken on the faith of". It is used when an author has not seen a particular work, but is taking it on faith that another author has correctly cited the work.

Significance of Reference Verification[]

Reference verification in genealogy is important in and of its self. That is, its important that we be confident that references cited a) exist, and b) contain the information that's attributed to them.

However, the true significance of reference verification lies elsewhere. As an overall statement, genealogists are not very good at explaining "how they know what they know". Information is diligently sought, and inserted into family histories. Often much effort goes into tracking down a piece of information, or developing the reasoning underlying a conclusion about a date of birth (for example). Yet much more often than not, the sources used to develop that information or the reasoning, are not provided. If you search family lineages presented on Ancestry (for example) its likely that nine out of ten entries will lack any indication about where the data is coming from, or at best, reference someone else's genealogical work. Here, the attitude seems to be "That's a lot of work. I found this out, its true, and I don't need to explain where it came from."

Yes, recording where information comes from is a lot of work. But its less work than having to redo the research because you've forgotten how you got that information, or when you find that you have several answers for the same question, and don't know why you thought one of them was right. Again, look at Ancestry family lineages. Often you will find that several hundered people have entered information about any given person. For any given individual where you have a few hundred records, you'll typially find a mixture of DOB's, DOD's, parents and spouses. And more likely than not few if any of these entries will explain what the information is based on. Without that information, its impossible to determine which if any of these records is right. Anything you picked would be little better than a guess.

So, in order to select among many choices you need to know what sources were used in developing those lineages. No sources, and you can't choose among them.

However, that's not the real significance of reference verification. The real significance of including or leaving out the citations, is that it speaks to your credibility. If references are cited, you can in theory, check them out. They tell you that someone had a basis for what ever conclusion they reached, and they've giving you the basis for verifying their sources, and ultimately for validating their conclusions. If they don't provide the sources, you can't do any of that, and your own work will suffer.

An adage that applies here is:

You don't know what you know unless you know how you know it

The corrollary to that being

If you don't tell people how you know what you know, they probably aren't going to believe you