Good genealogists know they must mine every document for as much information as possible, including tidbits inconsequential to the purpose of the record.
Start your analysis by determining why the document was created. A death certificate documents the time, place and cause of death, and burial information when applicable. Everything that relates to the death is considered primary information: details provided by a doctor and a funeral home official both of whom have firsthand knowledge.
A death certificate also contains extraneous information, such as date and place of birth, deceased parents, spouse and occupation. It seems like a treasure-trove, but genealogists should tread slowly. This is secondary information provided by someone with more distant knowledge.
The name of the informant will be listed, and sometimes the informant's relationship to the deceased. If the latter is not included, the researcher must dig to learn it; it's important when assessing the veracity of the information. How did this person know these facts?
G.D. Pruitt was the informant on the death certificate of one of my second great-grandmothers, Margaret James. His relationship to her was not identified, but my research determined he was her son-in-law.
Sometimes a certificate leaves a clue that means nothing to the casual reviewer. For example, from a variety of documents I have proved that one of my fourth great-grandfathers was an illegitimate child. His seven siblings likely were also illegitimate. He died in Oklahoma before death certificates were required. I found a death certificate for one of his siblings, Nancy, which lists her mother as Beckie Hulsey and her father as Unknown.
The informant was Nancy's nephew, who grew up in the same household with the old-maid Nancy and her mother. He likely would have known his grandfather's name unless it was a topic that wasn't discussed - as was the case in many families of illegitimate children.
Of course, this is all speculation, but speculating and theorizing are important as we search for evidence to prove or disprove our theories. Strong genealogical cases often are built with dozens of bits, such as the "unknown" status of Nancy's father.
The nephew provided a birth date for Nancy, but since it is secondary information, I must search for other sources to corroborate it. Never accept a sole secondary source as proof of any date in your ancestors' lives.
Other sources can be sibling death certificates, as I used with my Hulsey line. Suppose on your direct ancestor's death certificate, the maiden name of the mother is blank - probably because the informant did not know the name. If the ancestor had siblings, it's worth ordering their death certificates.
When researching Joseph Gallington Young Jr., I found his death certificate did not identify his mother. His sister Susie Young Blacklidge's death certificate identified her mother as Mary Angeline Camden. It's necessary to connect other dots to prove that Joseph and Susie were siblings and establish that Mary Angeline was mother to both. But that's the fun of genealogical research.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of questioning the accuracy of all secondary information on documents. Don't accept it as fact until you find other sources that confirm it.
When I obtained the death certificate of my grand uncle Blevins Ross Tate, I was shocked to see his son John (the informant) had listed Blevins' mother as Martha Culpepper. Everything else on the document matched information in my other searches. Had I been a new researcher I would have no reason to doubt this entry. But Blevins' mother in fact was Louisiana Stansell Hefner, an identity that I have soundly proven with much other evidence. I'll probably never know why John thought his grandmother's name was Martha.
I doubt that any of us could even prove our ancestry using only primary information - no one could be so lucky. So don't shy away from secondary information - just keep a suspicious eye on it as you climb that family tree!
South Bay Group
Odessa professional genealogist Drew Smith will speak to the South Bay Genealogical Society at 1 p.m. April 21 on "Options for Family Websites." The group will meet at noon for lunch.
Registration is $13, which includes the lunch and lecture, and must be paid by April 14. Send checks to the society at P.O. Box 5202, Sun City Center, FL 33571. After you mail your check, call Rose Huggard at (813) 633-0868 to make your meal selection.
The meeting is at SouthShore Regional Library 15816 Beth Shields Way, Ruskin.
Daughters Of Confederacy
Tampa Chapter 113 of United Daughters of the Confederacy will hold its Confederate Memorial meeting at 11 a.m. April 18. The program is "Burying the Dead," by Shelly Jakes.
The group will meet in the Magnolia Room of Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club, 1601 S. MacDill Ave., Tampa. Cost of the meeting-luncheon is $22. Make checks payable to Tampa Chapter 113 and mail to Shelly Jakes, 4522 W. Rosemere Road, Tampa FL 33609-4210. Checks must arrive by April 13. Questions? Call her at (813) 286-2575.