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 situations below then

  • classify a document as original or derivative
  • determine if the evidence within is direct or indirect.
  • decide if the information gleaned is reliable.

Here are four different scenarios.

1. Two people died in 1880. Joe’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. Lucille’s death certificate shows the physician filled in the information a couple months after she died, then filed it at the courthouse. In each case, is the death date primary or secondary information? Direct or indirect evidence? Which document is more reliable? (review Tips here)

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 1) the stone is weathered, or 2) the monument is from a modern era?

3. You have two source documents for John, 1) a death certificate which shows his death and birth dates as provided by the deceased’s older sibling, and 2) a typed transcription of John’s baptismal record when 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, and
  • 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. However, there is no published tombstone inscription or cemetery record of his death in the entire county where his wife and children continued to live. No obituary or death notice appeared in local newspapers. No death certificate was issued in the county, noting that these were not required until 1916.

What else could be searched?

  • A probate index showed 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. Back to the drawing board – you want to be sure this is not 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 summarize case proceedings in a record book or court docket? If so, search for papers in administrator’s records (surviving spouse may be named), an inventory and sale bill of the real and personal property (extended family might purchase items), or final distribution of the estate (heirs will be named).
  • Once 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 or if 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 (1889) 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 “partition” 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.

Last (or even first) if there is no conclusive evidence when “the relative” died, search for a divorce — this possibility must be eliminated 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), you may write with confidence a more compelling conclusion based on our findings. This summary of the evidence outlines steps that lead to the conclusion and cites sources for each fact so that others may examine the research for themselves and draw their own conclusions.

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