19 August 2015

Wisdom Wednesday - Always Look At The Source

Always look at the source record if you can.

Ancestry.com and presumably other sites let you easily pull in data from census records, birth certificates, and so on.  But be careful, if you don't look at the source records yourself, you may be missing valuable information.

Transcription Errors

The transcriptionists have done an amazing job. There are a lot of entries I can't even begin to make out, but I look at how it was transcribed and then I can see that it looks accurate. But everyone makes mistakes, and once in a while a name like Susan gets transcribed as Suean and if you don't look at the actual record, suddenly you've got some kind of weird Irish name in your family where it doesn't belong.

You don't have to be fanatical about this - just take a glance at it so that when you merge the transcribed data you have some idea of what it should be already and can spot obvious problems before they make it into your tree.

Not all data is pulled in automatically

Some Census data does not make it into your tree - key items like Occupation as well as did they own or rent the home, live on a farm, read and write and so on. Some of the data isn't transcribed, and other data just doesn't have a place for Ancestry to put it.

Looking at the data gives you a better sense of your ancestors, and helps you figure out if the record is actually for someone in your tree or not.  For instance, if your great grandfather who was a carpenter all his life is listed as a coal miner on one record, you can look twice at that one to make sure it is really your GGF.

Early Records

Before 1860, Census records don't include the relationship to the head-of-household field. Since the field isn't there in the record, Ancestry can't assume that people in the same household are the same family, so it doesn't bring them other records in when you merge the single one you found in your search.

All it takes is to look at the data, make a note of the other people in the household, and make sure you get those records added for them as well.


When you pull up the record, look at who the neighbors are. The simplest way is just look at the households before and after the one you've found. Keep an eye out for names that show up later in your history.

If you get stuck finding a census record for a particular year, but you know who the neighbors are, you can search on the neighbors in the missing year. Maybe you'll get lucky and find the record for Uncle Joe that got entered as Moe and didn't come up in your search.

Non-Census Records

Ancestry seems to be optimized for Census records, and that's where most people start. And that's fine. My point here is - when you pull up non-census records, be even more careful to examine the records visually because often most of the information will not be pulled in.

Is it significant that the pastor that married Uncle Joe has the same last name as his spouse?  You'll never know if you don't look at the record. 

Draft cards are very interesting - they usually list another contact person (wife or mother or father usually) and give details like height, eye and hair color.


If this post helps you, and you find some tidbit you might have missed if you hadn't looked at the source, we would love to hear from you - leave a comment below.

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