Verifying Genealogical Data Sources

Every serious genealogist attempts to provide one or more sources for each fact and event in his or her genealogy. Complete and accurate source citations are the stock-in-trade of the Board for Certification of Genealogists® which offers the Certified Genealogist (CG) designation. Whether you are a beginning or experienced genealogist, every effort should be made to source your data.

In general, there are two types of sources for genealogical data, primary and secondary, and the dividing lines between the two types are often blurry. Primary sources are considered to be those which are recorded at the time an event actually happened. Secondary sources are those recorded at a later date. Birth certificates and marriage certificates are primary sources, since they record a single event at the time and place it actually happened.

But what about death certificates? The record of the date and place of death is a primary source, but the date and place of birth of the decedent and the names of the decedent’s parents are reported by the informant, and they may or may not be correct. They are therefore secondary sources. One can say the same thing about gravestones. The date of death is invariably correct, it being a recent event, but the date of birth may be incorrect. Similarly, family bibles would be considered a primary source if the event is recorded at the time, but a secondary source for all births, marriages, and deaths recorded some years after the event took place.

In my searches for my ancestors, I have visited hundreds of gravestones. Not surprisingly, I have found many with an incorrect date of birth, or at least an inconsistency with another record, such as a census. Events such as birth dates that are reported years after the fact are often incorrect. For that matter, any data which depends on the recollection of someone else can often be wrong. A perfect example is my grandfather’s death certificate.


My father never knew his paternal grandparents, both having died before he was born. He also hardly knew his father’s brother and sisters, if at all. His closest paternal relative was a first cousin, the daughter of one of his father’s sisters. So his familiarity with his father’s side of his family was limited at best. As I mentioned in my previous blog, my mother was the family historian who kept track of her own family as well as my father’s family.

When my father’s father died in 1950, my father was the “Informant” on his death certificate. When he was asked for the names of his father’s parents, my father replied “Elias Skillman” and “Unknown Mersereau.” In actuality, his father’s parents were John M. Skillman and Angeline Randall. The names he listed on his father’s death certificate as his father’s parents were actually his father’s grandparents! So, as a passionate genealogist, I am embarrassed to say that my own father was a very unreliable secondary source on his father’s death certificate. So be careful in your family research, as all may not be as it appears.

John E. Skillman III

DNA Confirms Identity of King Richard III's Remains

As you may have seen on the TV news or in your local newspaper, the skeleton of England’s King Richard III has been located after 500 years under a parking lot! The head archealogist at the University of Leicester, Richard Buckley, announced yesterday that “It is the academic conclusion of the University of Leicester that beyond reasonable doubt, the individual exhumed at Greyfriars in September 2012 is indeed Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England.” The young king was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 by a rival army led by Henry VII.

Richard III’s remain were lost in the religious reforms of King Henry VIII and have been missing ever since. An archeology team used period maps and ground penetrating radar to locate the skeleton in a parking lot of the remains of the Greyfriars friary in Leicester. The skeleton was exhumed about five months ago and study has been going on ever since. Additional confirmation that the remains were those of Richard III was provided by DNA testing of two living lineal descendants of his sister.

More information from various news sources can be found by Googling “Richard III Found.”

Uncle Remus — Horse Thief

Various versions of this scam have circulated around the internet for years, often reworked with the names of political foes. But for members of the Skillman Family Association who have not seen it, here is the reworked story of an imaginary Uncle Remus Doe.

Let’s say that your great-great uncle, Remus Doe, a fellow lacking in character, was hanged for horse stealing and train robbery in Montana in 1889. A cousin has supplied you with the only known photograph of Remus, showing him standing on the gallows. On the back of the picture are the words:

“Remus Doe: Horse thief, sent to Montana Territorial Prison, 1885. Escaped 1887, robbed the Montana Flyer six times. Caught by Pinkerton Detectives, convicted and hanged, 1889.”

Remus Doe hanged

Pretty grim situation, right? But let’s revise things a bit. We simply crop the picture by editing it with image processing software so that all that is seen is a head shot.

Next, we rewrite the text:

“Remus Doe was a famous cowboy in the Montana Territory. His business empire grew to include acquisition of valuable equestrian assets and imitate dealings with the Montana railroad. Beginning in 1885, he devoted several years of his life to service at a government facility, finally taking leave to resume his dealings with the railroad. In 1887, he was a key player in a vital investigation run by the renowned Pinkerton Detective Agency. In 1889, Uncle Remus passed away during an important civic function held in his honor when the platform upon which he was standing collapsed.”

Now we have given Uncle Remus a distinguished place inside the family tree, not hanging from it! Needless to say, the Association does not recommend this practice to its members!

John E. Skillman III