Friday, December 2, 2016

Secondary information on an original document

Sometimes genealogists get into the habit of believing that because something was an "original source" or handwritten, it is therefore always correct.

While there is some truth in the idea that the more a document is transcribed, the more likely it is to contain errors (since at every stage of the transcription and/or translation process, there is a high likelihood of introducing errors.) But it's a logical fallacy to apply this principle in reverse; just because a document is original does not mean that it is correct.

In fact, what does it even mean for "a document" to be correct? Truly, documents do not speak for themselves, but rely on the interpretation of humans. Even a single piece of paper with one scribbled word in pencil might contain multiple layers of information. When you are a genealogist, you have the pleasure (and responsibility) of putting on your Sherlock Holmes detective hat and trying to deduce all the multiple layers of meaning you can from a document. "Wow, this record looks like it is burnt on the edges. I wonder what happened to it." "My ancestor signed his name but he spelled it 'wrong'; why?!" "Oh, the father's name is written in different handwriting. What does that mean?" Actually, it is not tedious or boring in the least; this is precisely what brings these documents to life and helps you to gain a closer connection to the humans of the past.

Here is an example my brother pointed out to me last night:

Frank Charles Janda was born in Texas to Josef Janda, one of the first settlers of Fayetteville (a distant "knee" relative, aka an n-th cousin, like basically everybody else from this town!) On his death certificate, however, there is an error. It says his father is "Frank Charles Janda Sr” when we know that it was really Josef.

Now, consider for a moment. Was “the death record wrong”, or was “a piece of information on the death record” wrong? Clearly, it is the latter. Information, not records, can be right or wrong.

The informant here was someone with the last name of Hruska, perhaps a married daughter? Was she a first-hand witness to the death? Well, whether or not she was in the room, she apparently was present sometime immediately surrounding the death, as she was the one who apparently filled out the paperwork.

But is it likely that she was also present at his birth? Well, if this was his daughter (I don’t know if it was), then obviously not. Perhaps she witnessed it from the heavens , but that memory was obviously veiled when she was born on earth (a metaphysical, not a genealogical, issue). So basically, what the witness knew about his birth is directly tied to their relationship. If she was his daughter, at best she heard about the birth second-hand.

Another clue for this being an error is the fact that it is written as “Frank Charles Janda Sr.” Somehow, this makes it seem like the witness didn’t know, and was just guessing. Or perhaps she was under duress during a difficult period of grief.
The fact is, documents contain information that we, as genealogists, must evaluate. The information’s validity/truthfulness is related to how the informant received that information, whether they were a firsthand witness, or they heard it through the grapevine.

This leads to an interesting philosophical question: can one really have first-hand knowledge of one’s birth? Technically, we were all present, but since we cannot remember it, is our knowledge secondhand?

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