Evaluating the quality of sources in genealogy research

evaluate sources genealogy research

#52Ancestors: Jemima Stowell Loop and the genes for longevity [Tweet this]

When I first caught Family Tree Fever, I thought those grand old genealogies were the best thing ever. (Full disclosure: I still think they’re pretty good.) However, I’ve noticed a consistent problem with surname-centered books and place histories alike—the authors seldom cite their sources. Books written a century ago may be closer to the details they report than we are, but if they don’t specify where those details came from, it’s wise to evaluate sources before taking down their claims as fact.

And how about newspapers? I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve mentioned on this blog the great discoveries I’ve made by searching the virtual stacks, but there’s no ignoring the fact that newspaper accounts are extremely susceptible to bad information.

And in this post, we get to see a place history and a news story collide.

Give me something–anything!

My search for the parents of Dr. Albert Mortimer Loop truly confounded me. When copious mentions in newspapers serving Tioga county PA failed to turn up a clue, I went looking for Dr. Loop’s siblings instead. In the process, I found this interesting tidbit:

1903-08-27; Wellsboro Gazette (Wellsboro, PA) - Wed (Reunion at Nelson)

It took time and patience (perhaps more of the former than the latter), but eventually I discovered a detailed obituary that named his parents: William and Jemima Stowell Loop. Wonderful! A new generation to research.

And then I found this:

“Hannah [BIXBY] also married in Vermont, Asa, son of Hezekiah STOWEL, who had previously settled in Afton, where she also settled and died September 18, 1850, aged 88. Her children were Arad, Hannah, who married Isaac MINER, Asa, Elijah, Jemina, who married Wm. LOOP, and Leapha, who married Dr. Nathan BOYNTON. Not one is now living, though all lived to be over eighty, except Asa, who died young.”

-from “History of Bainbridge.” Extracted from The History of Chenango County by James H. Smith. Published 1880. Contributed by Sandy Goodspeed, 2001. The USGenWeb Project, Chenango Co, NY Page.

How do I know I can trust you?

Not that I’m complaining about an apparent gene for longevity in the family, but upon discovery of the quotation from the book, I knew I had a problem. Both sources claim that all the siblings (except one) lived to be over eighty years old–but they refer to different generations.

I realize that it’s possible that both statements are absolutely true. However, a pinch of critical thinking never hurts, and in my perspective the similarities with inherent discrepancies between these two statements cast doubt on the reliability of the clipping. What if the Wellsboro Gazette reporter misunderstood a family anecdote offered by one of the three “Grand Old Men”?

And for that matter, how can we be sure the author of the Chenango county history book got it right?

Learning to Evaluate Sources

My first lesson in evaluating the quality of my genealogy sources by playing with the features in Family Tree Maker 2009 a while back. By using the star rating system feature, I learned what factors to consider.

  • Source: original or derivative?
  • Clarity: clear or marginal?
  • Information: primary or secondary?
  • Evidence: direct or indirect?

For much better definitions than I could write, check out Evaluating Evidence on Geneabloggers and Skillbuilding: Guidelines for Evaluating Genealogical Resources by Linda Woodward Geiger on the Board for Certification of Genealogists website.

In this case:

  • The transcribed book on GenWeb was a derivative source. In fact, even if I had a first edition of the book, it would still be compilation of information and derived from other sources.
  • The statement about 80 year old siblings was rather wordy but clear, and not obscured by either poor grammar or digital ink blots. One star.
  • The information was secondary, as the author of the book likely did not have firsthand knowledge of every person and event he described.
  • The source directly states that all but one sibling lived to be at least 80. I didn’t have to infer, deduce, or calculate. One star.

My evaluation of this source with regard to the long-lived sibling fact: two out of four stars.

Now let’s do it again for the newspaper clipping:

  • The digital image of the clipping is a derivative source . . . but the scanning process allows less chance of errors being introduced than a transcription of a compilation. Just sayin’. Half a star.
  • The wording about being from a family of seven siblings was kind of weird, you think? I’m marking this as marginal clarity.
  • The information was secondary. The newspaper writer likely had little knowledge of the Loop family other than what reunion attendees shared.
  • Once again, the source made a direct statement about the siblings’ lifespans. One star.

My evaluation of this source with regard to the long-lived sibling fact: one and a half out of four stars.

The verdict?

In the final tally, the Chenango history gains a slight edge over the Wellsboro Gazette clipping . . . but not enough to assert more than my opinion that the statement in the book is more likely to be accurate than the statement in the clipping based on being the older of the two. We would need reliable birth and death records for Jemima and her siblings, as well as Albert and his siblings, to prove or disprove either statement.

However, together these sources form indirect evidence for a lost family legend, which I find more compelling than exact dates. Albert accumulated several newspaper mentions as “the oldest practicing physician” in his town, and it’s no stretch to presume that he often conversed on the topics of health and longevity. I can see the anecdote about his mother’s generation becoming a favorite, and it probably took on an interesting permutation as he and his brothers aged. After all, we know at least three of William and Jemima Stowell Loop’s children lived to be over 80, or the story of the three “Grand Old Men” wouldn’t have been written at all!

I think it’s important to note here the nature of family stories—they get repeated, sometimes incorrectly. The Chenango history pre-dates the newspaper clipping by over twenty years, and at the time the book was written, Jemima Stowell Loop’s children had not yet reached the grand age. So even though the book doesn’t offer proof of the literal lifespans of Jemima and her siblings, we can be confident that “bragging rights” on longevity were established by her generation (if not before!).

Hey there, Cousin

Looking for Loops? Don’t miss Victor L. Bennison’s online resource, The Loop Family in America.

Stumped by Stowells? Maybe Stowell genealogy: a record of the descendants of Samuel Stowell of Hingham, Mass. on Ancestry has what you need.

What about you?

Have you ever had a quirky find that caused you to second-guess your sources? Do you think about the quality of your sources while researching? Do you have a formal process for evaluating them, or do you go with your gut? Let’s hear your take in the comment section!

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Next week, I’ll climb another branch of the Loop family tree for the sake of that all-important genealogical issue: Did my ancestor come from a prominent family?? 😉


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