Evidence: part 1

Last time I wrote about a family history document written several decades ago by a distant cousin and passed to me very recently by her nephew.  Although full of mistakes, it was still of much value to me.  Firstly, my own research broadly agreed with the names and places mentioned, and where there were discrepancies I was confident that these were down to my late distant cousin mis-remembering family stories: my research was correct. Second, although her claims about past wealth cannot be borne out by evidence so far available to me, there were sufficient verifiable facts that some aspects are worthy of further investigation.  And finally, the more recent accounts, which related to my great grandfather, his birth mother and their families, were essentially family gossip, things I would never learn by reading official records.  These are the parts of her story I value most.  I learned a lot about my great grandfather.

Following on from that, I thought it worthwhile to look a little deeper at different types of evidence, why some carry more weight than others, and how there can nevertheless be value in all.

Historians make an important distinction between primary and secondary sources.  As genealogists we tend to focus more on the distinction between original and derivative records.  And yet there is overlap between all of these categories.

Primary sources are created at the time of an event, or not long afterwards.  For us as genealogists these include original records from official sources, such as:

  • birth certificates
  • baptism records
  • marriage records
  • death certificates
  • wills
  • property documents, e.g. deeds
  • apprenticeship records
  • court records
  • 1911 census (and subsequent censuses, as they are released)

but they will also include such things as:

  • photographs of people and places
  • letters
  • memoirs
  • diaries
  • spoken accounts by people who played a part in the event

Secondary sources tend to be published works in which the author describes, summarises, discusses or in some way draws upon information gathered from other sources (primary or other secondary).  A secondary source may be produced many years after an event, and the author may have had no physical connection whatsoever with the original event.  Examples might include:

  • historians’ texts based on research about a person, locality, event or period of interest
  • literature contemporaneous to the events, e.g. Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell
  • modern historical novels and films based on sound research

One advantage of such sources is that the author can benefit from an overview.  S/he may know and understand much more than any one particular individual could have at the time.  There is also the benefit of hindsight, not to mention objectivity.

Derivative records are records created after the event but based directly on an original record.  As such, there is scope for error, based on illegibility of the original text, carelessness, or anything in between.  Examples we regularly come across include:

  • transcriptions of original records
  • indexes of record collections
  • census records, 1841-1901
  • Note that a photocopy of an original document remains, for our purposes, an original.

So far everything seems quite straightforward, but the picture is not quite as clear-cut as it seems.  Let’s consider some anomalies and grey areas.

Why is the 1911 census an original record, yet the earlier ones are not?
Since you’re reading this blog, you almost certainly know that when we find the 1911 census return for one of our ancestors, we see a single sheet completed by the head of household and relating to the members and accommodation of that household.  Undoubtedly, this is an original record and primary source.  By contrast, for the earlier censuses what we see is a long list of all residents in a specific locality, arranged by household, and organised according to the route the enumerator took as he walked from house to house, collecting the information.  You might have explained this difference with reference to the illiteracy rates: that since a great many people were unable to read and write, the enumerator simply arrived on the doorstep and wrote down the information he was given.  But this is not true.  Individual records were created for each property, and this was then transcribed onto the lists we see today.  The original sheets were destroyed.  In other words, all we have left for these earlier censuses is the derivative record.  This might explain some inconsistencies.  Off the top of my head: my great grandfather George appears as Enoch in the 1891 census.  Was this a mistranscription, or did George object to nosy-parkers coming to ask him questions?  My great grandparents’ second child is referred to in the 1881 census as Jane (female).  He was actually John, a boy.

Birth, Marriage and Death certificates: Are they original records?
You would think so.  But no, they are not necessarily so.  Imagine yourself registering a death in 1851.  You would go to the local Registrar’s office.  They would record all the information, give you your copy, keep the original for themselves and then send a third copy to the General Register Office in London.  Of course, there were no photocopiers: the only way to do this was to write it out by hand.  In other words, when we buy BMDs online from the GRO, what we receive is a facsimile of a copy of the original record, i.e. a true copy of a derivative record, and not the original itself.  You can choose instead to buy your BMDs from the local Register Office.  However, some don’t offer this service, while others don’t have the capacity for creating facsimiles of the originals: what we receive is a modern handwritten or typed copy of the original – again, a derivative record.  Perhaps this might explain an odd discrepancy you may have come across?

Bishop’s Transcripts: are they original or derivative?
BT’s are an interesting grey area.  They are the copies of parish registers that, from 1598 until around 1800, church ministers were required to keep and send annually to the diocese office.  Even if a parish’s records from this period have not survived, there is the chance that the BTs have.  They are contemporaneous with the originals, and if not actually written in the hand of the cleric, then at least by a churchwarden who may have known the individuals involved.  As copies, strictly speaking they are derivative records and may contain transcription errors.  However, sometimes they contain more information than the originals, and are often invaluable in providing a second chance in deciphering 17th or 18th century handwriting.

Are original records necessarily correct?
No.  Even an original record can only be as good as the information given in the first place.  In past centuries many people would have had no idea how old a deceased person was.  Any inconsistencies between age at time of death and the age you know to be correct can often be put down to this, provided all other details are correct.  Equally, sometimes false information is knowingly given, such as the tweaking of an age for a marriage, the falsification of marital status for a bigamous ceremony, and the pretence of marital status on birth registrations when the parents are not in fact married.

Think also about what is ‘truth’.  A contemporary newspaper report might be considered an original record.  We can expect a court reporter to faithfully summarise what happened during a trial.  But what about a war correspondent?  Their reports would inevitably be limited by what they actually saw and knew, what they felt was suitable for public retelling, and all this within the context of government censorship.  Is it true if it is not the full truth?  Is it of value nevertheless?  Yes, because all of these limitations are part of the context.

The wonderful thing about online genealogy sources (Ancestry, FindMyPast, FreeBMD, etc) is that the records are indexed.  As a result they are very easy to find.  We just type in a few key facts and we’ll be rewarded with a selection of possible records.  So much easier than going to the local County Records Office and sifting through decades of data stored on microfiche.  However, the indexes themselves are a derivative record: a list of each individual record to be found within the source.  As such they can and do include errors.  My great grandfather, born in Leeds, is indexed on the FMP 1911 census index with a birthplace of Scotland.  Consequently, it took me from 2011 until 2018 to find him.  I have also found a very clearly written ‘Alfred’ listed on the index as ‘George’, and indeed an entire collection indexed under Northamptonshire rather than Norfolk.  (When straightforward searches fail to return results, try searching instead for another family member – the one with the least common name.)

Contemporary values, ideas and gossip
One of the fascinating things about my late distant cousin’s story was the clarity with which she expressed the prejudices of her time.  While on the one hand expressing pride that a member of the family had been involved with offering assistance to late 19th century Jewish refugees, there was an undercurrent of anti Irish / Roman Catholicism.  This distinction does seem to be in keeping with other vibes I’ve picked up from this period in my home town.  In this respect the issue of truth and accuracy can sometimes take a back seat, in the sense that while we need to know the facts, in order to understand the society of the time, we also need to know what people thought, what they valued, what was scandalous.  Our own 21st century values may be completely irrelevant if we’re trying to understand why an ancestor pursued a particular course of action.  A word of caution, too, about family stories: they are not always true, although from my experience it seems there is often an element of truth in them.

Some conclusions
For us as genealogists it’s the detail that’s all-important.  If we don’t get the names, places, dates and relationships correct, nothing else will be correct.  So for us, seeing the original records with our own eyes is always the goal.

Derivative records are valuable in pointing us to the existence of the original, in providing us with information about the contents, and indeed where the originals no longer exist.  But it’s worth noting when only a transcript has been seen.

Other primary sources enable us to draw our own conclusions about the life and times of our ancestors, while secondary sources add valuable context and aid understanding

Where there are discrepancies: look at the records, step back, and decide for yourself if there is sufficient compatibility with your existing evidence for the discrepancies to be down to human error, misunderstanding, illiteracy or even censorship.  Rather than trying to prove yourself right, try to prove yourself wrong.

Next time we’ll think about how much is ‘enough’ evidence.  I’ll provide some case studies showing how all these types of evidence can be used together to build hypotheses and ultimately to overcome doubts and reach sound conclusions.

Here’s why we should look at online trees!

One of my early posts considered the merits of consulting other people’s online trees.  After outlining various dangers and pitfalls, I explained that I do often look at them, but importantly, everything that goes on my tree has been fully researched and verified by me.  If there are no records to support someone’s information, it will never find its way onto my own tree, other than perhaps marked as a plausible hypothesis requiring more research.

But more recently I’ve been using trees in another way – not to search for names, dates and events, but to try to work forwards from a person I’m interested in to the ‘Home’ person (the person whose tree this is).  If it seems like the tree owner is a direct descendant of my person of interest I sometimes write to ask if they can help me with some family stories or information or even if they have photographs.  Of course I’m always prepared to share what I have too, and although usually all I can offer is my research, maybe I have some interesting stories they don’t seem to have.

Sometimes they don’t reply.  Sometimes they do, but it turns out their connection is not as close as I thought.  I think we both had a good laugh when someone replied to say that yes, my person was on her tree, but he was described by Ancestry’s relationship calculator as ‘the father-in-law of the father-in-law of the great-aunt of her husband’!  I have to say too that on occasion people have been keen to take what I had to offer and then never given me whatever they had in return.

But sometimes I strike it lucky.  Here’s a couple of examples:


My great grandfather, George, died in 1940, but it seemed no photograph of him had survived.  After many years of asking any second cousins I came across, I finally found the tree of a descendant of my great uncle, the son with whom George lived in his later years.  If anyone had a photograph of him, surely she would.

I was right.  But along with a photo of George, she had inherited his entire family album, with photos of our grandfathers and their other brothers together, plus some correspondence with my granddad from his travels with the Army.  Some of the photos helped me to piece together a couple of mysteries.

My new second cousin doesn’t share my interest in past centuries and social history, but she loved all the stories I’ve been able to pull together about the more recent generations; and so in return for these lovely photos we spent a few weeks getting to know each other and sharing what we knew.  We’re still in touch.


A few months back I wrote (here and here) about my unlucky-in-love biological 2x great grandmother, Annie Elizabeth.  The point of the two blogposts was to use her story to illustrate several aspects of marriage law (elopement, bigamy, adultery, desertion, divorce, domestic violence and separation) that had been touched on in my reviews of two books (here and here) by Rebecca Probert.

Alongside those blogposts I wrote a fuller version of the story for my own family.  In that version I questioned, for example, whether there might have been problems at home following Annie Elizabeth’s mother’s remarriage, and if that might have been the reason for the fifteen year-old eloping with someone she barely knew.  I could see that her mother and step-father were living apart by 1871.  I also wondered if Annie Elizabeth’s first child, my great grandfather (another George) who was brought up by his paternal aunt, might have known who his true parents were.  I really thought these were things I would never know.

A few months ago I broke down a brick wall surrounding Annie Elizabeth’s parents, and this new information also included finding a sister, Martha.  Following through on a family tree linked to Martha, I found a descendant.  Bearing in mind that my knowledge of Annie Elizabeth is based entirely on records and documents found through research, to the extent that I didn’t even know if my great grandfather knew she was his mother, surely a direct descendant of her sister would know more.  Perhaps there would even be a photo of this lady whose life I have found so interesting…

The gentleman I wrote to turned out to be my 3rd cousin once removed and the great grandson of Annie Elizabeth’s sister.  He sent me a short family history written by his late aunt Amy – my second cousin twice removed – together with some notes of his own research based on what she wrote.

Now Amy’s family history is not going to get any prizes for accuracy.  It’s full of mistakes and half-truths.  There are people and places that fit with my research, but names are not quite right, and there is a strong suggestion of riches in our lineage that the available facts don’t bear out.  All this is forgiven: she didn’t have access to the records we’re able to take for granted, and her account has value in itself as a testament to the stories that must have been passed down to her.

Having said that, there were some absolute gems of information.  Reading her account, it felt like Amy was reaching out across the decades to verify for me the truth of several of my hunches.  I found that not only did my great grandfather George know that Annie Elizabeth was his mother, but he remained part of the family.  Annie Elizabeth’s mother was known to him as his grandmother.  Regarding my hunch that my Annie Elizabeth may have married in haste to flee an unpleasant home life, Amy describes the stepfather as ‘a rotter’ who, in one of his bad moods, set fire to a wooden chest full of family papers and other treasures, and made his wife and two daughters (Annie Elizabeth and Martha) watch it burn.  As for Annie Elizabeth’s second husband, who would later assault her, and whose demeanour in court did not impress the judge or the news reporters, there is a whole side story about him, his drinking, his ‘swelled-headed’ arrogance and his mean nature, all of which complements the picture I had built in my mind about him, based purely on the records.

There’s still a lot of information to be mined from Amy’s account, and some other things to check out, but I feel so lucky to have been given this little window onto the life of my great grandfather and his birth mother.


I hope these stories will encourage you to think about using online trees in this way.

Deep ancestral DNA testing

How far back have you got with your family tree?  150 years…?  300 years…?
How about two hundred thousand years…?!

One of my goals for 2019 was to develop my understanding of DNA for genealogy.  I became interested in this in 2013 but hadn’t made much progress.  Although the main type of DNA testing used for genealogy is autosomal, my introduction was through learning about two other tests: mitochondrial and Y-chromosome.  In future posts I’ll say more about my experience so far of using autosomal testing alongside traditional documentary research.  But today I want to start by going back to the beginning… both in terms of my own DNA journey and indeed almost to the beginnings of the human race.

Please note: I couldn’t even pretend to be an expert in what follows.  There’s a reading list at the end if you want to explore further.

Meeting the Izzards
Back in February 2013 I watched a two-part BBC series called Meet the Izzards.  Actor/ comedian/ campaigner Eddie Izzard took two DNA tests: a mitochondrial test which would follow his mother’s mother’s mother’s etc line all the way back through time; and a Y-chromosomal DNA test which would reveal the same for his paternal line.  At the time of writing, the programmes are available on YouTube:

Episode 1, dealing with his maternal line
Episode 2, dealing with his paternal line

Mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA inheritance
We all receive mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from our mothers, but only females pass it on to their own children.  Sons receive it, but can’t pass it on.  Y-DNA, on the other hand, passes only from father to sons.  The daughters never receive it.

So my brother and I can each take a mitochondrial test, and they would reveal exactly the same information about our maternal line deep origins.  But only I have passed it on.  His children have received the mitochondrial DNA of their own mother.  On the other hand, only my brother received our father’s Y-DNA.  He has passed that on to his sons but not to his daughter.  My sons have received the Y-DNA of their father (but not, of course, his mtDNA).  If I want to find out about my direct paternal line, I have to ask a male relative either in my direct paternal line or descended directly from that line to do it for me – my brother, nephew, father, grandfather, paternal uncle, a cousin who is the son of a paternal uncle, etc.

As a man, Eddie Izzard was able to take both tests: the mitochondrial and the Y-chromosomal.  It was his journey that inspired me to embark on my own.

Haplogroups and ‘clan mothers’
After watching the TV programmes I read Bryan Sykes’ book: The Seven Daughters of Eve.  Fellow of Wolfson College, and Emeritus Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Oxford, Sykes was a pioneer in the extraction of mitochondrial DNA from ancient human remains.  In this book, aimed at the non-scientific reader, he outlines how he did this, as well as some of the research findings flowing from that:

We all have one common ancestral mother.  She lived 200,000 years ago in Africa, and is referred to in DNA circles as ‘Mitochondrial Eve’.  We are also all descended from a common ancestral father.  He too lived in Africa, and is referred to as Y-chromosome Adam.  (DNA from Y chromosomes is harder to extract and was developed a little later, but there are parallel findings to the following for Y-chromosome testing.)

About 60,000 years ago, some of Mitochondrial Eve’s descendants crossed over the Red Sea, leaving Africa for the first time.  So started the worldwide human diaspora.  Some of our forebears headed north, some east, some west – obviously a gradual migration, taking thousands of years.  It wasn’t until about 40,000 years ago that the first anatomically modern human beings entered what we now call Europe, but they came via different routes.  Thanks to DNA, scientists are now able to trace their progress.

Sykes found that the vast majority of (indigenous) modern Europeans can trace their mitochondrial DNA to one of seven women – these are the ‘Seven Daughters of Eve’ referred to in the title of his book.  Scientifically, the terminology is that modern Europeans fall into one of seven mitochondrial haplogroups: U, X, H, V, T, K and J.  However, since the point of Sykes’s book was to bring the science to a more general audience, he focuses not on the scientific terminology of seven ‘haplogroups’, but on those seven women living way back in the distant past, with whom these seven distinct haplogroups originated.  He even gives them names, each one corresponding to the letter of the haplogroup she heads up: Ursula corresponds to Haplogroup U, Xenia to Haplogroup X, Helena to H, Velda (V), Tara (T), Katrine (K) and Jasmine corresponds to Haplogroup J.  While each of these women was a descendant of our common mother ‘Mitochondrial Eve’, if you are of indigenous European descent, one of these seven women will be your (many times) great grandmother.

Later, with additional data from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, Sykes added Ulrike as an 8th clan mother/ haplogroup.  But the science continues to develop, and it seems the precise number and arrangement of haplogroups is not yet fixed.  There are also an additional 29 haplogroups worldwide, all with ‘clan mothers’ named by Sykes and each associated with a different geographical area or native people.  You can read more about this here.

The science bit
It is the mitochondrial DNA we receive that identifies each of us as belonging to one of these haplogroups, and this mitochondrial genome usually passes unchanged from one generation to the next.  Periodically, however, it mutates.  (This isn’t a bad thing; it just means it changes.)  It is this mutated (slightly changed) version that will now be passed on by that line, and all descendants of this woman from this point onwards will be distinguishable as a different branch (or ‘subclade’) of the line.  These mutations, or ‘markers’ are what DNA specialists look for when analysing the mitochondrial genome for ancestry purposes.  By comparing these markers with other testers and with the DNA signatures typical of people in particular geographical regions, and then by calculating how far back in time each mutation occurred, it’s possible to suggest the broad migratory routes our ancestors appear to have taken to get from Africa 60,000 years ago to where we are now.  What this means is that rather than simply being of haplogroup U, X, J, etc, we are each identifiable as part of a subclade, such as J1 or J2, and even smaller sub-groupings than that, like J2a1a1a2.  (i.e. everyone in haplogroup J2 is descended from the one same many-times grandmother, but if you share a subclade with another person, like J2a1a1a2, then you also share a much closer common maternal ancestor.)

Combining DNA research with other disciplines
What really fascinates me about all this is how DNA evidence is now used in combination with archaeology, palaeontology, anthropology, linguistics and other disciplines to push back the frontiers of knowledge of our deep ancestry.  Here are some examples:

  • DNA has proven conclusively that although early modern humans and Neanderthals lived separately, about 55,000 years ago they did produce some joint offspring. Consequently, today the average European has just less than 2% Neanderthal DNA, while people whose origins lie in Asia, Australia and the Americas have an average of just over 2% Neanderthal DNA.  It’s possible that this is where we get (amongst other traits) our straight hair and our ability to retain weight (– this was a good thing 55,000 years ago).
  • Mitochondrial DNA has helped to solve a mystery about the apparent annihilation of Celtic as the language of Britain prior to the Anglo-Saxon invasions. The almost complete disappearance of the Celtic language from England, leaving it only in the West of the British Isles, was suggestive of the massacring of the people.  And yet DNA shows this did not happen.  Only the language was lost; the people remained.
  • Comparisons of mtDNA and Y-DNA in the British Isles has also shown that not all Viking invasions were violent. If the reverse were true, there would be a great deal of Viking Y-DNA and very little Viking mitochondrial amongst the British people, but this is not the case.  Therefore many Viking incomers were couples who came peaceably and settled.
  • It was mtDNA sequencing that proved the skeleton found under a car park in Leicester was that of King Richard III. His mitochondrial DNA, as received from their mother, was passed down through the female line from his sister to two relatives alive today.

Can this help with our documented family trees?
The autosomal DNA test – the one usually taken by people researching their family trees – gives us a complete 360-degree picture of the bits of DNA we’ve inherited from each ancestor of the last five generations or so.  Mitochondrial and Y-chromosome testing won’t help with this.  Since both types of DNA pass largely unchanged down the male or female line, our mitochondrial and/or Y-DNA links us back thousands of years to specific individual women and men whose names we will never know.  An mtDNA test, then, will verify that at some point we shared an ancestral mother, but the very slow mutation rate of this type of DNA means that it may be possible only to narrow this person down to a 500-year period.  A Y-chromosome test has a slight advantage in that it passes along exactly the same route as the surname.  Assuming, then, that there have been no adoptions, no elective name changes and no ‘non-paternity events’, a Y-DNA tester can expect to find they match with others of the same surname.  The sharing of the Y-DNA shows that they are definitely related on the paternal line.

Certainly for me, the decision to take a mtDNA test was separate to my interest in my family tree, stemming from a curiosity about my deep ancestral origins.

Further reading
Trust me – these are all aimed at non-scientists! (But I recommend starting with Meet the Izzards on YouTube.)

Bryan Sykes: The Seven Daughters Of Eve
Bryan Sykes: Blood of the Isles – outlining how DNA has contributed to understanding the nature and implications of successive invasions of the British Isles.
Sykes has also written a number of other books about various aspects of DNA.

Karin Bojs: My European Family: The First 54,000 Years – a fascinating, and up to date account of how genealogists, geneticists, anthropologists, linguists and other experts are working together to make sense of the deep history of the human family.  Karin Bojs is science editor of a Swedish newspaper, and in this work uses the general information to make sense of not only her own roots but also those of Sweden and Europeans more generally.

Blaine T. Bettinger: The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy – aimed at genealogists who are not scientists, this book covers mitochondrial, Y-chromosomal, autosomal and X-chromosonal DNA, explaining the science and then, importantly, how we can apply the results in our family research. Blaine T. Bettinger also has a blog and a YouTube channel.  He has helped me to make sense of a lot of this DNA stuff, and I’ll definitely be mentioning him again when I write about autosomal DNA for genealogy in the future.


Edited August 2020
My posts about DNA are aimed at complete beginners and aim to provide information in manageable chunks, each post building on previous ones. Click [here] to read all of them in order, or to dip in and out as you wish. You’ll also find lots of resources and useful links