The Internet is a candy land for genealogists but it can turn the family history into a sticky mess if researchers are careless and too trusting.
It's tempting to go on a genealogy site such as Ancestry.com and adopt as your own one of the posted family trees submitted with names identical or similar to yours.
The result usually becomes a tangled mess of individuals listed as ancestors simply because they bore the same name. The bottom line is that researching your family history and producing an accurate genealogy probably will take years and may even be a lifelong pursuit. You simply cannot produce an accurate family history over the weekend or in a few days.
So get off on the right foot by learning some basic and very important concepts on which you can slowly build an accurate history.
Four terms are critical to this work: sources, information, evidence, and proof.
You will use a variety of sources in your research. They come in many forms including books, digital files and people. These sources can be original or derivative. An original is one in its first form. For example, a will signed by the testator is an original source. If someone copied the will by hand or abstracted pieces of the will, those would be derivatives.
We can treat a digitized copy of an original as being an original, although technically it is a derivative, unless we have reason to suspect it has been altered in some way.
We get information from our sources. It can be primary (provided by a source with firsthand knowledge of something) or secondary (details from a source with more distant knowledge). For example, the date of death on an official death certificate would be primary information. Many death certificates also show the mother's maiden name. This is something a family or friend might relay to the clerk from an unknown family member or from what he believes to be the correct name.
Evidence simply is information that relates in some way to the research you are doing. It can be direct or indirect.
Direct evidence stands alone and seems to answer the research question. For example, a widow might state on an application for her husband's military pension that she married him on July 3, 1855, in Johnston County, North Carolina. That is direct evidence of her date of marriage. An important point here is to realize that just because something is direct does not make it correct. The widow probably was elderly and even likely illiterate. A researcher should be cautious of her memory.
Indirect evidence is that which must be combined with other evidence to answer a question. For example perhaps the question is "Who was Mary Everett's father?" You have a letter written by John Byrnes in which he said his sister Mary was about to marry George Everett. In your research you also find the will of a Martin Byrnes in which he made a bequest to his son John Byrnes and another to his granddaughter Elizabeth Everett. Census research shows an Elizabeth Everett in the household of her likely parents Mary and George Everett. When you piece these bits together, it appears from the indirect evidence that Mary Everett's father was Martin Byrnes.
Evidence also can be negative. This means you didn't find something where you would have expected to find it. Suppose you believe that Martha Johnson was the daughter of Thomas Warren but she is not listed among his children in his will. You know that Martha was still alive when the will was probated, so you would have expected to find her in his will. Your research now might turn to looking for a reason that she wasn't in the will. It is important to document negative evidence just as you would any other relevant information.
This is the point at which we all want to arrive with our genealogy questions. It is a conclusion reached from in-depth research that has been analyzed, evaluated, interpreted and correlated. Your reports should present all your evidence and research to convince your readers or family members. But good researchers keep their minds open and their eyes focused on finding new evidence that could discredit earlier "proven facts."
Send your genealogical methodology questions and event announcements to Sharon Tate Moody at firstname.lastname@example.org