March 16, 2010

Original Sources

Since I began working with RootsMagic™ version 4, I've been bedeviled by conscience to straighten up and enter all of my sources in the "proper" way.  Briefly, a proper entry is defined by some "authorities" - and in particular Elizabeth Shown Mills, a person I know only by reputation - as what information shall be included and in what form it will be presented.

In an effort to dodge the mid-stream boulders while rafting through this strange new world of documentation, I've sought to be as accurate as possible and to comply with Mills' Evidence Explained (EE).  I've also browsed the genealogy blog world for more help and recently found ThinkGenealogy, authored by Mark Tucker, self-described as "a software architect by day and a family historian on as many nights and weekends as possible."

The blog which the above link connects is a discussion that began when Mark wrote about "original evidence" and seems to conclude that by definition* of "original evidence" a headstone would fit that category.  It was pointed out by one participant that "EE is, of course, the standard definition used in the humanities, journalism, etc.–not a genealogical definition."  Still, RootsMagic™ used this book to prepare the pre-built source templets in Version 4.  I don't have a problem with that except that very few of them are adaptable without modification to what you and I might use (headstones, obituaries, stuff like that) for sources.  But, that's for another discussion.

My confusion over what is and isn't an original source was compounded by the absolute statement of one of the discussion participants that "a gravestone is certainly NOT an original source, since it is unlikely that the attending physician is the stone cutter who carved the name and date of the deceased on the marker and then stuck around long enough to see that the stone was placed on the correct grave site."

Perhaps I entirely missed the point of that argument, but this is what I got from it:

I must now believe that a headstone is not an original source while a death certificate is because the attending physician provided his signature to a document that fixed the date and cause of death. 

There is no relevance to the statement about the doctor overseeing the placement of the stone in this argument.  Even if he did watch the stone placement, how is he to know who's in the hole over which the stone is being placed?  Family and/or funeral directors go to great lengths to assure that.  There are other reasons that a stone may be on the incorrect grave, but it's not the grave, it's the stone that gives us the needed information.

My opinion is that the date of death and cause of death is the ONLY information of which the attending physician had any factual knowledge.  All of the other information was supplied by an "informant," who may or may not have factual knowledge of any of the information he or she is providing, irrespective of how close that person is to the deceased.  In fact, the "informant" is dictating to another person who can and often - quite probably - makes an error on any given certificate.

The attending physician likely signed the certificate some days or weeks later and very probably had no other interest or influence over what was included except the cause and date of death.  In all likelihood, the funeral director provided the burial place and date.

We as amateur family historians, know that death certificates are relatively modern documents and, we rely on them to be accurate.  In my experience, many are not!

Most of our ancestors lived and died before death certificates were mandated.  If our ancestor left no other documents that tell us when they were born or died, then probably all we have left to rely on are headstones.  If we are lucky enough to find one, and dates have not been eroded, why is it not an original source according to the definition(s)? 

Even if there is a death certificate and a birth date differs from those on the stone, which is correct?  Ever find a death certificate where age at death is given in years, months and days but, the headstone gives month, day and year?  Do the math and see if they agree!

Further to the argument:  Suppose one of your ancestors is shown in the 1900 census as having been born in Anymonth, 1870, and all previous and subsequent census enumerations in which he is found show that year - at least - to be accurate, +/- 1 year.  Then, you find a death certificate that reports year of birth as 1875 and headstone reads 1870.  Is the death certificate more accurate than the headstone?  I don't believe so.

I work a lot with headstones and death certificates.  In my experience I have found it rare when a certificate does significantly disagree with a stone.  However, among some of the errors I have found on certificates are the grandmothers name given as the mother, father named as husband, etc.  I don't think you'll find those errors on a headstone!

As I wrote in the beginning, my confusion over sources and what is or is not an original source is more profound now than when I began seeking clarification.  It may be so because I find it difficult to buy into some of the arguments for and against trusting certain items of evidence, such as a headstone or a death certificate to be accurate.  Or, I may have missed the point of all the for/against arguments that I have found.

In short, I think I'll keep plodding along by adding what I think is evidence of a fact and let later generations decide which is primary, original, derivative, etc.

*See Mark's blog

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