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FAMILY TIES: Tracing your ancestry
by Dan Burrows

The use of Compiled Sources
      Fortunately and unfortunately, much of our genealogical research is done with compiled sources.  It is fortunate that so many useful and easily accessible resources are out there, and unfortunate that we often do not have access to the original documents (primary sources).  Compiled sources are collections of information brought together in one place -- usually in some form of a book and are often broken down into seven major categories. 

Family histories and genealogies
Local histories
Compiled lists (genealogical dictionaries, directories, registers, etc.)
Biographical works
Genealogical and historical periodicals
Compendium genealogies
Special manuscript collections

Compiled sources are always considered secondary records (not original) and are the result of someone's research.  Secondary does not mean the source is inferior -- if it is well documented (sources cited) it is invaluable but the original sources cited should be consulted whenever possible to rule out errors or misinterpretations.  Following are brief discussions of these various sources:


          This is by far the largest and fastest growing category of compiled sources.  The error rate in these printed genealogies is extremely large -- depending on the thoroughness of the compiler.  The major reasons for this high error rate are: Laziness of the compiler by guessing at facts and relationships instead of laboring over many sources and paying attention to detail. Ignorance of the fact that many documentary archival sources are available to use instead of relying on previously printed secondary sources.  The expense involved in doing documentary research from primary sources can be overwhelming to some.  It should be remembered that something that is worthwhile doing is worth doing well.   The fascination of some who would rather accept a line of descent that sounds or appears better than to prove that it might be incorrect.  When evaluating family genealogies and family histories, an educated guess to their reliability can usually be made by asking: Are the sources well documented? Are the sources primary or secondary? Are genealogical problems thoroughly discussed so the reader can see the basis of their acceptance or even research the problem on their own?  There are bibliographical sources that can be consulted for determining whether or not a genealogy exists about a family that you are researching such as the book Genealogies in the Library of Congress which covers up to 1976 and the various supplements that have followed. The card catalogue of the Mormon Church, catalogues from larger book dealers, and book reviews in periodicals are a few examples.


          Most areas of the United States have had local histories written about them -- many done in the late 1800's and others done in more contemporary times.  These, like family genealogies vary greatly in style and accuracy and the many of the same guidelines should be used in evaluating them.  There are several bibliographies of available histories to be consulted but when in doubt one might consult a local historian or genealogical society.  Munsell's Index has been one of the most widely used for finding buried genealogies contained in local histories but it only covers only those printed up to 1909.  Sinclair's recent index to New Jersey biographies and Copely's index to 3 or more generations of genealogy in New Hampshire town histories are great examples.  These can be found in many genealogical libraries.

          Many times your ancestor may be too obscure to have a history or biography included in a local history, but you might come across a valuable clue by his or her casual mention in someone else's biography.  Some local histories contain valuable biographical sketches throughout the text and others have separate biographical sketches.  Fortunately many of the older histories are being indexed by local groups or individuals to make your research easier but some indexes are incomplete.


          Several genealogical dictionaries have been compiled through the years.  Some of the most prominent are Savage's Dictionary, the Genealogical Dictionary of Maine and New Hampshire, the Genealogical Dictionary of Rhode Island, and the Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army. These usually have sources cited so that  researcher can do further investigation of the facts. 

          An example of a local dictionaries for our area would be Pioneers of Orange County.  Other compilers have done these massive compilations of mini genealogies (sometimes called registers) for specific localities.
 Local directories (similar to today's phone books) are a very valuable genealogical source as you can track families in specific towns for years.  Sometimes notations are made to advise you that a person has removed to another locality.  They can often help you pinpoint a death if the listing changes from Mr. to Mrs. or disappears completely when it is known that the person did not remove to another location.


          Biographical works usually deal with persons who have achieved some prominence but they many times mention not so prominent persons affiliated or related to those persons.  There are many of these compilations and the most famous are of a national scope such as the Cyclopedia of American Biography.  Their intentions are simply biographical and not genealogical.  Most are of relatively recent information, contemporary to the time of publication
which is the major difference separating them from the compiled lists mentioned previously.

          Some local biographical works are available for many parts of the country and they vary greatly in form.  One of the most popular done in the very late 1800's were the Commemorative Biographical Records.  These are also known as "Mug Books" (as were some of the more "biographical" county histories).  Persons usually paid to have their family and personal information printed in these books.  Though much of the information was given directly from the families, a certain amount of exaggeration occurred and one must evaluate the more illustrious
statements.  Much valuable information and many clues can be found in these local biographical works and again we are fortunate that many are being indexed.


          his is by far one of the most useful sources for solving genealogical problems.  These vary greatly from the scholarly journals of the 
New England Historical and Genealogical Society and the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society to mimeographed newsletters of local groups.  They contain a wealth of genealogical information such as:

Genealogies and family histories
Family and biographical sketches
Indexes to otherwise un-indexed records
Information from valuable unpublished private sources
Copies of lost records
Genealogical queries, book reviews
Much valuable local information
How to" and new useful tips

Most of the information in the smaller periodical lies buried and untapped but some indexes are available to guide you to this information such as:

Jacobus' Index to Genealogical Periodicals
Genealogical Periodical Annual Index
Munsell's Index to American Genealogies
Self-contained indexes to major genealogical periodicals


          Compendium genealogies are similar to genealogical dictionaries except that the thoroughness of  research is usually much less.  Compendiums are mass gatherings of sketches usually put together from other secondary sources or family information.  These should always be used with caution and documented whenever possible from primary or well documented secondary sources. A couple of major examples would be:

The Compendium of American Genealogy by Virkus
Colonial Families of the United States of America by Mackenzie
American Ancestry by Munsell


          Many people spend years compiling genealogical information that never gets published.  These end up in trunks up in the attic, donated to libraries and genealogical societies and worst of all destroyed by uninterested family members.  When researching in a specific locality, ask around about manuscript collections and if they have any kind of index.  These are very difficult to locate, even if you know they exist for the can change hands unnoticed.  When citing a manuscript as a source it is very important to note its location and the date so that future researchers have a better chance of tracking it down.


Other compiled sources that are very important to genealogical research are:

Transcribed census records -- when found you should always consult the originals.

Transcribed church records -- these  can save you hours of thumbing you way through disorganized church registers but again it is useful whenever possible to consult originals

Military records are sometimes organized and put together by interested persons and can be a great source of genealogical source material.


          Newspapers, though not actually compiled, are a great genealogical source.  One can find obituaries, marriage and engagement announcements and stories, birth announcements, legal notices, notices of thanks and news items about families.  It should be remembered that getting the facts exact was not the priority of older newspapers.  Weekly newspapers, as a general rule, contained more genealogical information than the dailies.

Bibliographies of newspapers can be found in the following:

History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690 - 1820 (2 Vols.)  by Clarence Saunders Brigham, 1962
American Newspapers, 1821 - 1936 by Winifred Gregory (editor), 1937
The Ayer Directory of Newspapers and Periodicals (An Annual publication of present newspapers)

Note: In many older newspapers, the following words occur when dates are mentioned and they are defined as follows:

Instant:   Of or occurring in the present or current month.  Sometimes abbreviated inst.

Ultimo:   Of or occurring in the month preceding the present.  Sometimes abbreviated ult.

Speaking of newspapers, an ad in a local newspaper where your ancestors used to live might bring unexpected results.  An interesting letter to a small town local paper might even get you an article with even better returns.


          Though compiled sources have many problems, errors, and limitations -- one should not be discouraged from using them for all their good points.  Some of the limitations are as follows:

Accessibility and availability -- lack of indexes, no knowledge of existence, and inability to find.

Reliability -- Lack of documentation, guesswork, typographical errors, and carelessness are frequent problems but there are a lot of good works out there.

Completeness -- Many genealogies are far from complete with large gaps omitted because enough research has not been done.  Many times the information that is given is incomplete.

Documentation -- If documentation cannot lead you  to the primary source, the possibility of error is more likely.  Too often, mistaken information is copied over and over again from one compiler to the next.

The Dilemma -- If our research begins and ends in the library we may be missing out on many of the real facts and passing that misinformation on to others.   Try to find the original sources!! 


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