Saturday, November 12, 2011

Nathan Brown: Using Secondary Sources

This is one of a series of posts that follow up on my Legacy Family Tree webinar called "Brick Walls: Cracking the Case of Nathan Brown's Parents." Use the Nathan Brown tag/label to view all the posts in the series.
During the research process it is inevitable that you will encounter secondary sources and information. If you don't pay attention you might not even realize when you are using them.
Secondary sources are resources that were not created at the time the original event occurred. These can include published genealogies, transcriptions and family oral history among others. There are many different kinds of secondary sources.

Secondary sources can act as a guide to help your research proceed in the right direction. They need to be supported, however, by primary sources that will confirm your findings. Secondary sources also need to be verified to prove they are accurate. Secondary sources, as in the case of published genealogies, that do not cite sources may not be accurate and can possibly lead you in the wrong direction.

Some of the secondary sources that I used while researching the Nathan Brown case include:


To learn about the Brown family I used the book Vital Records of Swansea, Massachusetts to 1850 transcribed by Peter Rounds. Mr. Rounds was not the Town Clerk present at the time that the records were originally recorded. He was a 20th century researcher who published a transcript of the original records. Errors could have been introduced at the time of transcription. Using transcriptions, particularly for vital records, is not usually a problem because of access to the original records. Many original records have been microfilmed so that you can check them. In New England, you can also visit town halls and check the original records in person. Whenever there is a question about the accuracy of a transcription, the original should be consulted.


When you search on to find images of original documents you are using an index disguised as a search function. The index results are considered secondary sources because they are created by someone who was not at the original event. The transcriber who created the index is one level removed from the original documents and could introduce errors into the index. If you search on and obtain results from the index but don't actually click through to view the original document image then you are using a secondary source. Only when you view the image of the original can you say you have consulted the primary source.

In the case of Nathan Brown, I used indexes on to search US Federal Census records. When I scanned a page of Brown families living in Charlton, Massachusetts, I was viewing secondary sources. The same is true when I used the used the Worcester County Probate Records Index to identify possible family members for Nathan Brown. My analysis of the secondary source information then helped me target which original records I should view as my primary sources.

The Barbour Collection used either at the Connecticut State Library or on are both secondary sources. The Barbour Collection, a state-wide compilation of vital records, was created from viewing the original town records. The Barbour Collection on is one step even further removed from the original source because it is a transcription of the Barbour Collection index and not taken directly from the town records. Is the information incorrect? No, not necessarily but the further removed you are from the original the more importance there is in verifying the original source and the more likely there could be errors.

Published Genealogies

The most troublesome secondary sources are the published genealogies. They are so tempting to take at face value and incorporate into your family history research. The best rule of thumb is the older the publication is the more suspect it is. Another item to look at with published genealogies is the citations. Are there citations for each fact, each paragraph or simply each biographical entry? Perhaps there are no citations but simply a bibliography at the end. The fewer the citations the more likely you will need to verify everything you read pertaining to your research. Some genealogies are published in peer reviewed journals such as the National Genealogical Society Quarterly and the New England Historic and Genealogical Register. Genealogies published in well-respected, peer reviewed journals are more trust worthy than other published works and you will likely find they include detailed citations.

The published genealogies that I used when researching the Nathan Brown case included:

Boyer, Carl 3rd. New England Colonial Families Vol. 1, Brown Families of Bristol Counties, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, From the Immigrants to the Early Nineteenth Century. Newhall, California: Carl Boyer, 3rd, 1981.

Browne, William Bradford “Chad Brown and His Descendants”, New England Historic and Genealogical Register, Vol. 80 (1926), 73-80, 175-176.

White, Dorothy Higson. Descendants of Roger Williams, Book III, The Sayles Line Through his Daughter Mary Williams. East Greenwich, RI: Roger Williams Family Association, 1991.

In the next post in this series I will specifically look at an example from one of these publications and analyze the accuracy of the information.

If you missed the live version of the webinar, you can see it now in the Legacy Family Tree archives. It will be available until November 14, 2011 to view (for free) at your leisure. 


  1. Marian, thank you for this. It's a useful learning tool for novice researchers, and perhaps a reminder for other not-novices.

  2. How did you find the Roger Williams' in terms of searching for Browns and Millers?

  3. Martin,

    I'm glad you asked that. The Roger Williams thing was out of the scope of my project. However, I found a reference note to it in the NEHGR article when searching for Browns. That lead me to check the Descedants of Roger Williams book. I mentioned to Geoff after the webinar that that information is not verified and he will have to do that himself. Though I was willing to mention the note (which was quoated directly in the webinar) because it came from a peer reviewed journal.

  4. Of course, I just answered your question as if you had watched the webinar. But now that I think of it you probably didn't because you would have figured that all out already. If you watch the webinar (it's up there for one more day) it will make more sense.

  5. I was asking because I indexed the Roger Williams books for my book and was hoping you used my index. I also indexed NECF and the NEHGR, but you didn't.

  6. Martin, you'll be happy to know that I do have a copy of your book. As I was focusing on 1790-1815 I didn't think I would really be needing it. Otherwise I would have reached for it for sure.

  7. Small correction. ;)

    Other fields (and genealogy itself years ago) refer to sources as primary and secondary. However, in genealogy, we refer to sources as original or derivative. What you describe as secondary sources are "derivative" sources.

    Every source contains multiple pieces of information. It is the information that can be either primary (eyewitness) or secondary (transmitted). Some records contain both primary and secondary information, which is why we can no longer identify a source by these terms. Think of a death certificate that contains both birth and death information, where the informant is the decedent's spouse or child. The death information may likely be primary, but it is highly unlikely that a person's spouse (or child!) was present to witness the decedent's birth. Therefore the information on the death certificate about his birth would be considered secondary.