Q. I have quite a few relatives listed on my family tree. I got the information from other people. Am I supposed to document these relatives proving I am related to them? What counts as documentation?
A. Receiving a family tree from a cousin is a great way to jump-start your genealogy research. To be sure the information is accurate, though, you’ll want to document the people on the tree.
“Documenting relatives” is a kind of genealogical shorthand for the process of finding evidence for names; birth, marriage and death dates; and relationships.
Ideally, you’ll use primary sources as documentation—that is, records created at the time the event occurred. A birth certificate, for example, is a primary source for the baby’s name and date of birth. A county history book mentioning someone’s birth is a secondary source, because it was written years later, possibly by someone without firsthand knowledge of the birth.
In addition, the best documentation is an actual record, rather than an abstract or an index created by someone looking at the record. If you find your ancestor in a cemetery index, for example, you’ll want to write to or visit the cemetery to get the burial record and photograph the tombstone.
Of course, sometimes primary sources are unavailable—maybe your ancestor was born before the county started issuing birth certificates, or the records were lost in a courthouse fire. In those cases, you’ll find as many secondary sources as you can and evaluate them for their reliability. Maybe you can’t confirm the exact date a person was born, but you can confidently state the year. Or you can’t say for sure where a family was in 1890 (during the US census for which almost all records have been lost), but you can make an educated guess based on your research.