About Genealogical Sources


Sattelite imagery of the Middle Appalachians from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh

In this introductory chapter I want to summarize the sources of genealogical information and speculation I have used. I would think this discussion useful for any non-genealogist reading these pages.

Genealogical Sources

There seem to be many ways to classify source material in genealogy. As a general rule, the closer a record is to the actual event it records, the more dependable it may be. Unfortunately there are exceptions to this rule. A further complication comes when later authors compile, abstract or interpret earlier documents, sometimes introducing their own bias as a result. So it is best to use a primary source when it is available. Below is a summary of the types of sources one might find, in order of relative dependability.

Wills and deeds

We may debate how much the government or its legal system benefits an individual, but no one can argue with the ability of our political and legal systems to retain information. This can be a great boon to one born hundreds of years later who is trying to identify ancestry. Unfortunately, the sort of information held onto by the government tends to reflect what is valuable to it, which is generally not people, rather money, and by extension, property. So it does not surprise me that the oldest American and English documents I have that demonstrate family relationships are wills. Wills, when made, often do give information regarding family relationships. However, a will may not always mention those family members who have died or are already financially secure, such as daughters who are married or sons who have left a region. Surprisingly, estate inventories, frequently recorded in earlier times, may provide hints regarding personal relationships, since friends of the family, neighbors, or persons related to the deceased were asked to execute this task.

Property deeds can identify who was where when, although most old deeds don't describe very well where where was. The recorded deeds and surveys at least give the dimensions of the tracts involved. With old topographic maps, a good vector graphics application and some imagination I have been able to place some properties, perhaps even accurately.

Birth, marriage and death

Birth and death certificates rarely existed at all in America until after 1880, and not routinely until after 1900. Even when available, a death certificate provides information given by someone who may be two generations removed from the individual who died; inaccuracies thus can occur. Clergy in America started recording marriages rather early, but on the frontier marriages routinely took place without clergy. Some government agencies, notably Maryland, did register marriages early on, but in our case key records from Washington County (1776 until 1800) were lost in a fire. Newspaper accounts of births, deaths and marriages were not very complete either until the twentieth century. In large cities, death notices were quite brief unless the person was exceptionally notable. Still these snippets of information can allow educated speculation, as the reader may hopefully see in these accounts.

In contrast to America, the British records for baptism, marriage and burial extend back to 1560. Now the Church of England records are often available only in microfiche, faded and illegible, and their original recording of information varied as to the rector's eagerness to do so. The Quakers were much more thorough in their record keeping; they included in their documents such things as guest lists at weddings and attendants at births.


A word about the U.S. census. Started in 1790, these enumerations initially provided only the name of the head of household and the general age and sex of those living with him or her. Starting in 1850, all members of the household were listed, along with precise ages and place of birth. The accuracy of these records depended on the intelligence of both the census taker and whomever gave the information to him on the day of reckoning. I have seen mistakes in the recorded age which range up to 10 years from the expected age. Names are often spelled creatively, particularly when dealing with families who were not literate. Finally, there are big gaps in this information. The records for the entire 1890 U.S. census were lost in a fire. When the British burned the U.S. Capitol in 1814, the census data for many states, including Virginia, were lost. In Allegany County, Maryland, the 1790 census does not exist; similarly the first census for Franklin County, Ohio is 1830, 27 years after statehood. Finally, in the course of this narrative, there are instances where families are just not in the census at all. This problem may reflect the movement of people. It does not appear to be unusual for families to disappear beneath the census radar when they are no longer prospering.

In the nineteenth century, it became common for larger cities to publish directories, listing both people and businesses. These seem very analogous to the telephone books of more recent times. When available, these records allow for more minute tracing of the people listed, although the caveats mentioned above still apply. The absence of proof is never proof of absence.

Other Government Records

Miscellaneous government records, such as tax assessments in England and colonial America, have provided glimpses of individuals from time to time. There sometimes are membership lists for American churches; these may also establish a person's location. Finally, other legal matters in court may sometimes indicate relationships, family or otherwise, although such relationships are rarely explicit.

Family Bibles

Family Bibles can provide fairly detailed genealogical information. Their accuracy depends upon when the information within them was recorded, as the entries may have been made several generations after the fact. Unfortunately it is unusual to be actually able to see the original record. I will mention several Bibles germane to this family history; there certainly have been others judging from the information posted on Ancestry.com and from private correspondence. For Thomas Perrin of Town Creek I will discuss a good example of a presumed Bible record.

Historical biographies

One fascinating source of information comes from the late nineteenth century, when it was common for publishers to go to a locale (usually a county) and prepare a book for publication containing biographies with associated genealogies collected from the county's residents. Generally it was those who paid who got into such a book. The writers often waxed eloquently about their client's ancestries to the point of absurdity. Comparison of the accounts presented here will show widely divergent notions regarding the origins of the Perrin family. Still, after accounting for generation compression and event mis-attribution, these accounts may contain facts which, when corroborated, are useful, and when not corroborated, are tantalizing.

Folk tales

Finally there are personal accounts. These can often be difficult to distinguish from legend. I have included these in this genealogy whenever possible, recording them verbatim, as they are the most entertaining material to be found.

In the novel Mason & Dixon Thomas Pynchon states much more eloquently the importance of such accounts, as evidenced by the following dialog between his narrator (Reverend Cherrycoke) and his audience::

"Alas," beams the Revd, "must we place our unqualified Faith in the Implement, as the Tale accompting for its Presence, - these Family stories have been perfected in the hellish Fire of Domestick Recension, generation 'pon generation, till what survives is the pure truth, anneal'd in Mercilessness, about each Figure, no matter how stretch'd, nor how influenced over the years by all Sentiments from unreflective love to inflexible Dislike."

"Don't leave out Irresponsible Embellishment."

"Rather, part of the common Duty of Remembering, - surely our Sentiments, - how we dream'd of, and were mistaken in, each other, - count for at least as much as our poor cold Chronologies."

Modern published genealogies

With the arrival of the internet more people have posted genealogies, either independently, or through commercial organizations such as Ancestry.com. Regardless of their venue, most web-published genealogies do not provide sources for their information. In the case of Ancestry.com, cut and paste copies of genealogies posted by others abound. (Indeed, folks have cut and pasted portions of my Web publications into their own genealogies). Assumptions thus may be repeated to the point of being believed.

Before the internet people privately published their work; this sort of effort continues to the present. These sources also vary in clarity or accuracy The best of the private genealogies explain their sources and reasoning; these can be extremely helpful.


There are several other types of soft genealogical evidence which deserve mention.

Family Naming Conventions

Before the nineteenth century, many families were more or less predictable in their choice of first names for their children. Typically used were the names of the maternal and paternal parents, followed by the parental names themselves. While naming conventions were rarely followed precisely, the appearance of a first name in a generation may argue for an ancestor of the same name somewhere in the past.


During times of frontier settlement it was not uncommon for families who knew each other from a given location to then move west together. This history has a number of examples where I know this to be true. But there are also instances where co-migration seems likely, and I will often rely on such a possibility when making speculation.

Handwriting Analysis

When original documents are available, the presence of a signature may sometimes be of value. On the frontier many were unable to sign their name at all; this fact may differentiate individuals who share the same name. When a signature is identical to one found elsewhere, it may aid in following an individual on the move. But there are also instances when signatures difffer; I will attempt explanations for this phenomenon when it occurs. There may be an instance when an ancestor purposely disguised his handwriting. Finally, it is possible that, due to changes in handwriting style, a later author misread a signature. So like every other kind of evidence, exceptions can occur.

Linguistic Analysis

Along with handwriting, the spelling of names may provide clues regarding ancestry. For John Perrin or Perins in Maryland there is an interesting discrepancy between how one individual spelled his name versus how the authorities spelled it. In that instance some of the phonetic renderings of his name may actually provide a hint regarding family origins. I expect that this sort of analysis will prove controversial.


My own experience has told me that whenever a genealogy states a fact, and does not include a reference to its source material, I am frustrated. It becomes impossible to say how that fact may fit with other information, particularly if there be any inconsistency. So I have cited my information as best as possible.

Many times I have not seen the original sources for material I cite. Sometimes those sources no longer exist. Other times I have been forced (or out of laziness, have chosen) to rely upon secondary sources. In all cases I have documented what source I have seen.

There are a few intentional exceptions to this kind of obsession. U. S. federal census information is now easily obtainable from books and web pages. Municipal directory information, particularly from Historic Pittsburgh, are similarly available from the Historic Pittsburgh web site. Some family oral history can not be confirmed in the historical record, but I do try to indicate its source within the family.

For general historical statements, I have avoided footnotes, as I typically don't have enough expertise to comment intelligently