Friday, February 14, 2014

Primary & Secondary Sources

In genealogy, we often come across conflicting data that leaves us wondering which fact is accurate, or more likely to be accurate, and therefore should be put into our tree. The best way to determine this is to understand the documents you're using, how and why they were recorded, and assess whether they are a primary or secondary source.

Marriage records, primary source for the marriage fact
but a secondary source for the birth fact.
A primary source is a document which was recorded at the time the event took place. A birth certificate is a primary source for a birth event, a marriage record is a primary source for a marriage, etc. Many documents also supply information of previous events, such as a marriage record listing the ages or birth years of the couple marrying. This is a secondary source, a document which was recorded well after the event occurred. So a marriage record is a primary source for the marriage event but a secondary source for a birth event. Needless to say, a primary source is more likely to be accurate than a secondary source, though that doesn't mean it's impossible for a primary source to be inaccurate too, but it's generally more trustworthy than a secondary source. Watch out for deceptive documents that might seem like they are a primary source but which may actually have been recorded years after the fact. This is why it's so important to understand what type of document it is that you're looking at and when it was recorded.

A secondary source can also be a document in which the informant is someone other than the individual that the document is about, particularly when it comes to information which is not really a time sensitive event, such as the names of a person's parents. A death certificate is a primary source for the death event in the sense that it is recorded at the time of the death, but can also be considered a secondary source considering all the information on it is supplied usually by a near relative of the deceased and/or a doctor/medical examiner. For example, a widow who never met her deceased husband's parents may provide their names incorrectly on the death certificate because she is a secondary source for that information. So with death records, it's especially important to examine who supplied the information and assess how reliable they might have been. Take into consideration that grief can confuse people and even close relatives can be estranged for so long that they don't know many of the facts of the deceased's life.

The other half of assessing a document's accuracy is understanding why and how it was recorded. Census records, for example, are frequently misunderstood by beginners to genealogy. I think in today's world, there is a common belief that any sort of government document is 100% accurate but that is certainly not the case. They're likely more accurate now than they were in history, because our record keeping has become more efficient, but even census records today are taken for demographic purposes, not identification. This means that it is not as crucial for many of the personal details filled out to be totally accurate. In the past, when censuses were taken by enumerators going door-to-door, this was especially true since there was more room for error, census records are like secondary sources twice over. The enumerator might have misheard or misunderstood the informant and don't dismiss the possibility that the informant themselves might have provided the wrong information. Generally, one person provided the information for everyone in the household, making them a secondary source for everyone but themselves. They might have been an in-law or youngster who wasn't confident about exact birth dates or locations, or a forgetful grandparent. If no one was home when the enumerator knocked on the door, they were supposed to return to the address later, but sometimes it was all they could do to simply ask a neighbor for your ancestor's details. Names and spellings weren't of the highest priority and I've even seen genders recorded inaccurately. Many censuses didn't even record a birth year or date, only the age of the individual and so naturally, this means that birth years calculated from an age are commonly out by a year or two. So everything on a census document should be taken with a grain of salt (except perhaps the date and location where the census was taken). This doesn't mean you should discount census data, but until you can confirm it with other, more reliable sources, keep in mind that the information from it might be subject to change at some point down the line. Birth years from census records should be input into your tree with "abt." (about) in front of them so you know it's approximate. Same goes for immigration dates, marriage years, etc. The census is a secondary source for all of these types of facts, except maybe if the event occurred immediately preceding the census.

Lastly, don't dismiss the possibility that an individual doesn't even know certain details about themselves, like when or where they were born, especially if they were born before the government began issuing official birth certificates. I know this seems impossible by our standards - how can someone not know when or where they were born? Didn't they celebrate their birthday? It's possible they did not. While birthday parties and birthday gift giving became popular in the 19th century, many poorer folk may not have been able to celebrate a birthday like we do today and certain cultures may not have participated. In any case, if an individual did not even know when or where they were born, naturally, recording these details in secondary documents would have been problematic and therefore they may vary on different records. This is why primary sources are so important.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Patriotic Society of the City and County of Philadelphia

Never heard of this? Neither had I, but it played a noteworthy role in our state's and even our nation's history. Anyone with German ancestry in Pennsylvania might find this interesting.

In colonial times, the German population was strong, particular in Pennsylvania where by 1790, they made up about a third of the total population. It is not surprising therefore that the English were wary of their influence in the colonies, which was particularly strong in elections such as for the Colonial Assembly (the colonial governing body), because the Germans tended to all vote for the same candidate. The Germans themselves were largely influenced by their German newspapers in the colonies, particularly Christoph Sauer's newspaper in Philadelphia, which was known for having anti-English sentiments. In fact, it seemed to have made use of a little bit of propaganda by impressing upon the Germans that the English intended to enslave them and enforce compulsory military service among their young men, much like the circumstances from which they had fled their homeland. As a result, the Germans frequently refused to serve in the army for Britain's fight against the French over Canadian territory. In turn, the English feared that the Germans were strong enough in numbers to rise up and turn Pennsylvania into a German nation, thus there was a lot of prejudice among the English against the Germans. Proposals were put forward to bar the German's from having a vote in the Assembly, during which time they would also be forced to learn English. It never happened though, and as a result, the German language prevailed in America all the way up to World War I.

Benjamin Franklin, unfairly critical of Germans
in Pennsylvania
But in colonial times, the prejudice against the Germans was so strong that even our beloved Founding Father Benjamin Franklin shared harsh, negative views of them. In a letter from him to Peter Collinson in 1753, he wrote the following:
"I am perfectly of your mind, that measures of great temper are necessary touching the Germans, and am not without apprehensions that, through their indiscretion, or ours, or both, great disorders may one day arise among us. Those who come hither are generally the most stupid of their own nation, and as ignorance is often attended with great credulity, when knavery would mislead it, and with suspicion when honesty would set it right; and few of the English understand the German language, so that they cannot address them either from the press or pulpit, it is almost impossible to remove any prejudice they may entertain. The clergy have very little influence on the people, who seem to take pleasure in abusing and discharging the minister on every trivial occasion. Not being used to liberty, they know not how to make modest use of it. They are under no restraint from ecclesiastical government; they behave however, submissively enough at present to the civil government, which I wish they may continue to do, for I remember when they modestly declined intermeddling with our elections ; but now they come in droves and carry all before them, except in one or two counties. Few of their children in the country know English. They import many books from Germany, and, of the six printing houses in the province, two are entirely German, two half German, half English, and but two are entirely English. They have one German newspaper, and one half German. Advertisements intended to be general, are now printed in Dutch, (German) and English. The signs in our streets, (Phila.,) have inscriptions in both languages, and some places only in German. They begin of late, to make all their bonds and other legal instruments in their own language, (though I think it ought not to be), are allowed good in courts, where the German business so increases, that there is continued need of interpreters, and I suppose in a few years, they will also be necessary in the Assembly, to tell one-half of our legislators, what the other half says. In short, unless the stream of importation could be turned from this to other colonies, as you very judiciously propose, they will soon outnumber us, that all the advantages we have, will, in my opinion, be not able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious."
It is therefore rather ironic that not long later, many of the "English" of the colonies, who previously feared the loss of British rule to the German settlers, were now unified with them against the British in the American Revolution. With the exception of many of the pacifist Mennonites who held an indifferent stance in the conflict, the Germans were firmly on the side of the Patriots. In 1772, the German residents of Philadelphia held a significant amount of influence in business and civic matters and created an organization called The Patriotic Society of the City and County of Philadelphia. Its intent was to prepare and support what they correctly viewed to be the inevitable struggle for the colony against the British. Though it gets little mention these days and does not even have a Wikipedia page about it, its existence shows the support of the German faction of Pennsylvania in the Revolution, despite the harsh prejudice previously against them. Understanding their vast numbers in the colony proves just how important their support was for the success of the Revolution and the creation of our nation.