US Census, 1860, Ward 4, Atlanta, Fulton, Georgia

Citing Sources

Unless we have sources, genealogical research is reduced to unconfirmed stories and myths.

Our memories are wonderful and faulty. People change “facts” to fit their worldview or some idealized perception of the past.

Why sources are important

Stories are great, as long as you situate the story in context by citing the source. There’s no documented source for my Mother’s slightly mangled fingernail, so any statement about that would need to be cited as a family story or from an oral history by my Mother. (She wasn’t supposed to be cracking walnuts with a hammer…)

On the other hand, if I say that J.H Fuller was a Railroad Conductor in Atlanta Georgia in 1860, I would need to back up that fact with a link to a source document (it’s also in the image above, though that isn’t quite specific enough!).

Providing access to the source document is also important to correct an errors that might creep in. For example, was Mr. Fuller’s middle initial really “H”?? You can go look for yourself. We can compare the handwriting of other characters to decide.

What is a source?

A source is a document or other information that substantiates an assertion of fact. More reliable sources are usually generated near the time of an occurrence. For example, a birth certificate is generally a more reliable source of date of birth than a death certificate. Census records are reliable for place of residence and often for family relationships, though often have errors in the (calculated) date of birth.

Other sources include tax records, marriage records, Social Security records, and Family Bibles (though unreliable especially if all the writing seems to have been done at one time). Cemeteries also contain valuable sources of dates and sometimes indicate family relationships by the grouping of graves or shared grave markers (tho not always!!), though this is subject to interpretation. Providing the original source allows other researcher to make their own assessment of the information.

What is *not* a source?

Many people have written to me that their source is “” or “Find a Grave.” These are not sources. The Census records or grave markers are sources. The website itself is not a source, it holds sources and allows us to access those sources. As great as Find a Grave is, much of the information on the memorial pages is not authoritative – does not qualify as a “source.” Just because a parent or spouse is linked does not make it so. Documents can be uploaded, and can be source as long as a caption is added with the origin of the document.

How to cite sources

Whatever system you may be using to assemble your family history should have some built-in mechanism to record sources. On, every person’s record has a whole tab dedicated to connecting source records to the persons listed in the source document. My original J.H. Fuller does not yet have such a page, though a J.H. Fuller born about the same time was living in nearby Marietta in the same Census does have his Census record attached to his page.

Other software or tree-building service should have a similar mechanism – learn it and use it. If you are keeping records outside of such software, you will need to devise a clear way to keep such info. It helps if you Document AS YOU GO!

For more informal use cases, it is often sufficient to just include a hyperlink to the online service’s page holding the document or transcript. For my above example, the link to the transcript is

For more detailed citations, you would include where the information was found. There are many “standard” formats, the preferred style is the Evidence Style, developed by Elizabeth Shown Mills.

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.

Badly-formatted citations are better than no citations! A simple link is much better than having to redo the research from scratch.

Share what you find. Don’t trust your memory and always evaluate the source of facts.

Taking it further

There are many good resources online to learn more. Here are a few:

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