Tips for Researching Your Ancestor: Document and Evidence Challenge
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St. Clair County (Illinois) Genealogical Society (SCCGS)

Tips for Researching Your Ancestor
Document and Evidence Challenge

We learned how to evaluate documents and the information provided within them on the Tips for Researching Your Ancestor page. Now apply those lessons. Read the challenge questions below to

  • Classify a document as original or derivative
  • Determine if the evidence within is direct or indirect.
  • Decide if the information gleaned is reliable (primary or secondary).

Here are four different scenarios.

1. Two people died in 1880. Person A's death certificate shows the death date, written in by the physician within hours of the deceased's demise, and filed the next day at the courthouse. Person B's death certificate shows the physician filled in the information a couple months after the death, then filed it at the courthouse in Spring some three months after the event. In each case, is the death date primary or secondary information? Direct or indirect evidence? Which document is more reliable?

2. A tombstone displays a death date for a person who died back in 1880. Is the death date direct or indirect evidence, primary or secondary information? How does your analysis of the date change if the stone is weathered? If the monument is from a modern era?

3. You have two source documents for a person, 1. a death certificate which shows his death and birth dates, each provided by the deceased's older sibling, and 2. a typed transcription of his baptism as an infant which shows his birth and baptism dates. For each source document, classify it as original or derivative. Determine if the birth date is primary or secondary information. Decide which document provides direct evidence of the birth date. For the baptismal document, classify the baptism date as direct or indirect evidence, and primary or secondary information. Do you have different answers for the dates provided in the baptism document?

4. A distant relative appeared on the 1880 census with his wife and his children under age 10. He does not appear with his wife in the 1900 census - you suspect he died between 1880 and 1900. There is no published tombstone inscription or cemetery record of his death in the entire county. No obituary or death notice appeared in local newspapers. No death certificate was issued.

  • An old, handwritten index to probate case files includes a case for the year 1889 for a man whose name matches your relative. The index appears in the original courthouse register but the original case file is missing, which would have named the surviving spouse and/or children. Now how might you determine if the man in this index is your relative?

Review interviews of family members. Perhaps memoirs written some 50 years ago mention the son had to quit school to help on the farm in place of his father. Quick calculation places the year about 1887. This is promising.

But wait! Though the probate case index fits your relative's timeline, good genealogical research requires we perform a reasonably exhaustive search before arriving at a conclusion - and more importantly - the man in the index might just be a like-named person!

Indexes are pointers to documents, and poor substitutes for the real thing. A missing probate case file does not let us off the hook. So, we go beyond the index. Did the probate court record case proceedings in a record book? If so, search these, e.g., administrator's records, an inventory of the real and personal property, or final distribution of the estate. Analyzed and correlated with what you already know about "the relative's" life and family, information in the record books may narrow the date of death considerably and provide evidence from named survivors that the deceased is your relative, not someone by the same name.

OK, let's say there are no probate record books to examine. What else will help determine when your relative died?

  • City directories might be useful, especially if published in a series. Some even name the spouse of the widow or widower. By comparing addresses of those with the same surname, evidence might point toward a death year.

    No city directories?

  • Deeds recorded in the county courthouse might solve our problem. For example, if "the relative" signed a deed passing land to his child in 1890, the man in the probate index (above) must be a different person, and "the relative" died after the transaction.

  • A "friendly" court case in which heirs file suit against each other may solve the problem. These cases are called "petition to divide real estate" or simply "partion" and are filed in chancery court, a division of the circuit court. Information in these files will name parties of the suit, the deceased, the location of the land to be divided, and sometimes exact relationships to the deceased.

And if there still is no conclusive evidence when "the relative" died? Search for a divorce -- you must eliminate this possibility as the reason "the relative" went missing after 1880.

Now that a wider variety of sources was examined (court, directories, land, probate), two of which were searched in greater depth (probate record books and court cases), we confidently write a more compelling conclusion based on our findings.

In the end, you will need to write a summary of the evidence that led to this conclusion, all the while attaching a source citation to each fact so others may examine the research for themselves and draw their own conclusions.

The St. Clair County (Ill.) Genealogical Society (SCCGS) has many helpful indexes, addresses, and transcriptions online. Church register transcriptions and its Research and Resources... Guide are just a few of the many publications offered by the Society.

SCCGS invites you to join in their efforts to preserve ancestral records for educational and historical purposes, promote genealogical publication of this information, promote the preservation and safeguarding of genealogical data, and encourage the study of family history and teach methods of genealogical research. See links below to learn more about SCCGS, its projects, goals, and accomplishments. Enjoy!


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St. Clair County Genealogical Society
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Belleville, IL 62222-0431
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©28 October 2008 The St. Clair County [IL] Genealogical Society. All rights reserved.

Information may be linked to but not copied. Authorized by SCCGS Board of Directors. Updated 1 April 2016.