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Primary Sources Versus Secondary Sources

Posted in Genealogy 101

Last updated on July 31, 2006

If you have been researching your family history, you may have run into the classic pitfall. Primary sources can be expensive to obtain and difficult to find. Logic tells us that getting hold of eyewitness accounts when possible is best, but that might involve costly trips and sending away for copies of records and archives that can quickly put a dent in your budget. In some cases, primary sources are not saved or their whereabouts are unknown. Secondary sources are generally more available, but might not always be reliable.

It should be noted that primary sources may not always be correct. Eyewitnesses do not always describe things accurately (or without bias). Spelling errors are common. For example, on my great-great-great-grandmother’s headstone, her name is incorrectly inscribed as “Mary Anna Cunningham.” In fact, her given name was Mary Anne Penelope Anthony — she married Johnson Franklin Cunningham. Her family may not have realized this fine distinction and so misspelled her middle name. In a related error, Mary Anthony’s name was incorrectly transcribed by another genealogist (a common error, as handwriting can be difficult to read) as “May A.F. Anthony” in her marriage record. Also, my grandfather’s family Bible has the name of his grandfather, Johnson Franklin Cunningham, incorrectly transcribed as “Johns Cunningham.” While he may have gone by the nickname “Johns,” not realizing his full name was “Johnson” may have thrown roadblocks in my way.

Secondary sources are often good, but must be carefully weighed. When I first started working with genealogy online, I was amazed at the plethora of evidence available. I was transported into paroxysms of delight when I found the LDS site and began clicking through those Ancestry Pedigrees. A word of caution: sometimes genealogists do not take care to be thorough in their research. I have found countless errors on that site. For example, the site lists mythological Norse gods as the forebears of early English royalty. No doubt those were really taken from a book, but common sense would tell us a chronicler referring to his king as a descendant of the gods is not to be taken seriously. Yet, someone had that in his or her family record or it wouldn’t be in that pedigree file! Also, the site routinely has genealogist errors in name spellings, dates, places, and the like. You just can’t trust other genealogists to be thorough and accurate with their research. The best thing you can do if you run across a claim you believe to be dubious is research it yourself. Don’t include information you believe to be erroneous in files you share with others. That just perpetuates the cycle of misinformation. For example, I was told several years ago by a librarian that many people with the surname “Bolling” descend from Pocahontas. This is, indeed, true. I have ancestry in the Bowling/Bolling family through my great-great-grandmother, Stella Bowling. I have tentatively traced her lineage back to the pioneer, Benjamin Bolling. I found another genealogist’s family records tracing Benjamin Bolling to Pocahontas herself. I was, needless to say, excited by the prospect of being descended from a mythical figure such as Pocahontas. However, upon further research, I discovered that Benjamin Bolling is one of the infamous “blue Bollings,” so called because they appeared “out of the blue” in a family history by Zelma Wells Price in the 1960s. This erroneous information has been copied over many times by lazy genealogists. In fact, the dubious lineage was reproduced on his historical marker! DNA testing on descendants of Benjamin Bolling as compared with other Bollings descendants with a proven relation to Pocahontas have proven that he was not a descendant of Pocahontas. Take any information you find in secondary sources like other researchers’ files (including mine) as a lead for research and not conclusive proof. On the other hand, information reproduced in several secondary sources can be as reliable as (or even more reliable than) primary sources.

Nowadays, with the advent of sites like US GenWeb, whose aim is to provide free research help to genealogists, we can access more primary sources online. This is great news for those of us who can’t afford to break the bank on research trips and copies of vital records.

Update: Correspondence with Bowling cousins who have taken DNA tests has proven conclusively that Stella Ophelia Bowling does not descend from Benjamin Bolling, as other evidence previously led me to believe.  As I said in this article — be careful about sources!

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One Comment

  1. Peter Pilcher
    Peter Pilcher

    I’am looking for a David Bowling who married Jame Pilcher on the 10th of sep. 1741… I have only davids name no other info..if you have any info Please let me know. thanks Peter Pilcher

    June 27, 2005

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