We know we should cite our sources… but as a researcher, you should also consider your source. Maybe you’ve collected all sorts of information about an ancestor and you have a variety of sources to back that information up. But maybe there is something that doesn’t add up, something that doesn’t fit.
To avoid feeling like something is off, you need to evaluate and judge each source. Why was the source created? Who created the source? Does your ancestor have some sort of reason to exaggerate or lie? Maybe they didn’t lie purposefully – maybe they just forgot? Perhaps you have immigrant ancestors who didn’t speak English (or had a very heavy accent) and there was a communication barrier. There are a lot of reasons why information on a source document could be incorrect. It is your job to weigh how likely the information on the source document is to be correct.
For example, after my mom passed away, I received a lot of beautiful condolence cards from family members and friends that often included a little anecdote or memory about my mom. These were so special for me because it helped me get to know another perspective of my mom.
I trust that most of these stories were true. However, I received one letter in particular that I know was full of inaccuracies and falsehoods: The letter from my schizophrenic aunt.
I know in my heart that when my aunt wrote this letter, she was telling what she believed to be the truth – but her mental illness has made it difficult for her to tell the difference between reality and fantasy.
The letter itself was beautiful and talked about wonderful of a sister my mom was. It talked about happy times and how much they got along. It talked about when the Pope visited their little Catholic school. It ended by saying that I was much too young to lose a mother and asked if I was excited about starting high school next year. In short… the whole thing is made up fantasy.
The Pope never came to the Catholic school that both my mom and my aunt attended. My mom and aunt had anything but a wonderful relationship growing up – in fact, my mom had plenty of stories that showed how my aunt was a bully and did some pretty mean (borderline cruel) things to her. I even remember feeling the tension when my aunt and mom were in the same place – there wasn’t much sisterly love and happiness going on between them.
And I was 20 when my mom passed away – not a 13-year-old middle school kid.
If my grandchildren or great-grandchildren discovered this letter, they would be getting a lot of completely untrue stories. The stories are nice, but there isn’t an ounce of truth to them.
As you are doing research, please remember to not only cite your sources, but weigh it too.