Why shouldn't I rely on U.S. and International Marriage Records, 1560-1900 ?

+35 votes

I'm placing this in "Special Projects" because this source is often cited as a definitive source for marriages in, for example, Puritan Great Migration profiles.

The U.S. and International Marriage Records, 1560-1900 

is described as follows:

This unique collection of records was extracted from a variety of sources including family group sheets and electronic databases. Originally, the information was derived from an array of materials including pedigree charts, family history articles, querie[s].

It is a highly derivative source, relying on sources that are themselves derivative and which may or may not cite sources themselves. Another source that I often see cited is the "Millennium File," which is of similar quality.

If either is your only source for data, you should cite it. However, if and when better sources are available, you should replace it with those.  

How do you judge one source as better than another? There's plenty of guidance available on this topic, but good sources:

  • are contemporary to the time period that the person lived (e.g., birth certificates, marriage records, land deeds, wills, etc.)
  • demonstrate sound genealogical research and cite documents contemporary to the time period (e.g., Robert Charles Anderson's Great Migration Series, most articles in the NEHGS Register and The American Genealogist and other quality published journals).


WikiTree profile: Margaret Hicks
in Policy and Style by Jillaine Smith G2G6 Pilot (672k points)
retagged by Robin Lee
Jillaine, how do published family genealogies fit into this mix?  For example, "The Ralph Sprague Genealogy" or "The Humphreys family in America".

To me, many of these books appear to be well-researched and to agree with the sources where sources are available.  They also nicely fill in gaps where records are unavailable.  For someone who is researching from California, away from the libraries, towns and other places where paper records might be, these books have proven to be very, very helpful.  But I'm never sure how much weight to give them.
Kyle, they fall into the second category ... Or they don't.  I judge such genealogies by the extent to which they cite their sources, what kinds of sources they cite and the degree to which they make the case for their claims when conflicting evidence exists.  

There is a class of published genealogies that came out in the late 1800s early 1900s that are frequently relied upon because they are available freely online, being now in the public domain. Unfortunately they tend not to cite sources. So it can be impossible to judge how good they are.  And often subsequent published research-- not available for free-- provides more accurate information.

The good news is that much of this later published research is available online through membership in such orgs as NEHGS and NGS.

Just a note of interest.  I have in my possession some of the notes of David Webster Hoyt's research.  Mostly it is in notebook and index card form.  Evidently my gr/gr aunt assisted him in some way because it's from her estate. The information described below was then numbered by descendant number and put in the index files alphabetically.

What is contained in the notebooks is:

Transcriptions of family letters - evidently the practice was to write to Hoyt families and ask for an update.  If one was received ie.- Uncle Joseph Hoyt died on August 3, 1884 at Henniker, NY age 81 years.  His wife Tillie is still alive and living with daughter Mary Willis in Henniker.   His granddaughter Sophia Hoyt, dau. of John and Margaret Hoyt,  married Edward Haynes, son of Edward Sr. and Jennifer  Hayne on July 4, 1883 at Syracuse.  They had William on Oct. 5, 1884; Jennifer Susan on Nov. 30, 1885, and twins Edward Charles 3rd and  Charles Edward on Feb. 8, 1889.  They are living at 146 Elm St., Syracuse and Ed is a conductor for the XX railroad  and then it is signed by whichever Hoyt descendant responded, often address of that person noted.

There are some transcriptions that give a whole line: Something like grandfather Jesse Hoyt and Margaret Tillis had 6 boys and 3 girls and then it lists all the children, with dob, some have spouses and children with dates and/or locations. 

Each notebook entry has a corresponding Descendant Number Added.  So if Jesse Hoyt was Hoyt (837) in DW Hoyt's Books; the children in the correspondance were then numbered and added.  So Jesse (837) and Tillie Hoyt  are susequently listed with  (5109) Jesse Jr. (5110) Mildred Hoyt married Joseph Barnes (5111) Lydia d. young (5112)....etc.

There are also transcriptions of  New England Town VRs - Amesbury MA, Newbury MA, Sanborton, NH, Moultonboro, NH  etc.  Some also appear to be correspondance with town clerks and that in some cases, someone went to the various towns and transcribed the Hoyt/descendant VR for his research.  There are also graveyard transcriptions.

Some list numerous generations with more notes:  My grandfather served 3 months at Bunker Hill and 6 mos at Bennington as a private the xx MA militia.  My father was a school teacher in Hampstead, he was  a Lieut. in the Marines on the US Vessel Portsmouth, and died at Surinam of the yellow fever when I was only 5 years old..

Some state things like my grandmother is still alive and has an excellent memory, we went through the family bible  and she told me additionally  ....

He cites numerous standard sources  throughout his books, so I am guessing that these correspondances were used to add generations, although not cited.  There are also notes in the margins, that appear to be someone checking/verifying some of the information as best they could from VR, town clerks, church  and grave records.


What about records found in this category: "U.S., New England Marriages before 1700"?  Reliable source or not?  Thanks,  Kelley

U.S., New England Marriages Prior to 1700

I find this source useful for the following reasons:

If often gives enough information to find the record.  Ex. Houghton, Thomas ( - 1714) & Mary Brown of Amesbury(1671- 1745: bef 1691 Ipswich.

You can then go look in Ipswich (and/or Amesbury) records:

To see if you can find the actual marriage date.

To see if you can find birth records for either party.

To see if you can find births of children (which also indicate approx marriage of parents as well)

The (year ranges ) often give either or both the birth and death year, to find more records.

If nothing else, it helps find the correct State/County to further search in.

If you can’t confirm the actual date (not recorded in church or town records) it’s still a useful estimate, and I use it as a source.

Two responses.

1. Chris Hoyt: MAN! am I envious of your collection. What a treasure trove. It's also my sense that many of the early genealogies were compiled from correspondence as you describe, and a mix of additional research, also as you described. You didn't ask, but I'll offer: if you're going to cite those research notes, ESM's recommended way would be something like:

David Webster Hoyt, Research Notes 1889-1913, privately held by Chris Hoyt [address for private use], City, State, April 2014.

or for a specific letter inside the collection:

(Author of letter), (Location of Author) to (Recipient), (Location of Recipient), Letter, (date of letter), [in David Webster Hoyt, Research Notes 1889-1913,] privately held by (etc...)

2. Kelly, I assume you're speaking of the Ancestry.com databse that draws from: Clarence A. Torry, New England Marriages Prior to 1700, Baltimore, MD, USA: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2004.  Always look for the description of the source. In this case, Ancestry.com says this:

About U.S., New England Marriages Prior to 1700
This work, compiled over a period of thirty years from about 2,000 books and manuscripts, is a comprehensive listing of the 37,000 married couples who lived in New England between 1620 and 1700. (A few later marriages are noted as well.) Listed are the names of most married couples living in New England before 1700, their marriage date or the birth year of a first child, the maiden names of 70% of the wives, the birth and death years of both partners, mention of earlier or later marriages, the residences of every couple and an index of names. The provision of the maiden names make it possible to identify the husbands of sisters, daughters, and many granddaughters of immigrants, and of immigrant sisters or kinswomen.


In general, Torry did a good job, although errors have been identified subsequently. NEHGS is working on a huge project that intends to take Torry's work and make of it something like what Robert Anderson did in the Great Migration series. Profiles for each family. But I digress.


"Evidently my gr/gr aunt assisted him in some way" 

How way cool is that!

3 Answers

+6 votes
This is great, thank you for posting it!
by Eowyn Langholf G2G Astronaut (1.4m points)
+5 votes
Here is another great answer on this subject.   http://www.ancestryinsider.org/2007/12/marriage-records-database.html
by Robin Lee G2G6 Pilot (492k points)
Great article; thanks for linking to it, Robin.
+3 votes

Hi Jillaine, I respectfully question one tiny part of your message here. The idea of removing a bad source from a profile, even with the addition of a better source, is really problematic for many of us here.  Removing research information from any profile, good or bad, leads to hurt feelings and I believe it does much more harm than good.  I may not be thinking of this the same way you are, but I think that all resources should remain on the profile. 

Please see this G2G for an example of how this WikiTreer felt when sources were removed: http://www.wikitree.com/g2g/102635/why-do-i-even-bother-anymore

As I responded to this G2G, 

  • Someone invested a lot of time, work and energy putting the information together. Do not discount another's work. Instead of deleting, please edit the biography or post a bulletin board comment on the profile explaining the errors or ommissions in the listed source.
  • Even bad sources provide a record of documents that have been researched already. When we know them, we can look for other, better sources.
  • Good research needs to be verifiable by others. If the sources are removed, no one can verifiy if the data collected is accurate.  

In cleaning up profiles and adding sources, we need to keep the pertinent links and information already there as a record of the research that has already been done.  If the record of research is deleted, then potentially, someone will just find the same reference and post it again to the profile. 

by Kitty Smith G2G6 Pilot (473k points)

Kitty, thanks for your thoughts.

My understanding of Dale's concern was that the Leader deleted sources, even the suspect ones, but did not replace them with anything, much less anything better. And yes, I've seen several g2g posts where people are upset that sources have been deleted-- but only when something else/better is not put in their place.

Speaking for myself, I've never seen anyone upset when better sources are put in place of bad ones. (And I am frequently thanked when I do so.) Yours is the first comment I've seen expressing concern about replacing weak sources with stronger ones (unless I've totally misunderstood other posts about this topic).

I also don't think it's cut and dry. For me, it depends on what kind of source is being replaced. 

On PGM profiles, for example, if I am working on a profile that cites an online family tree for let's say a marriage, but I have found the actual marriage record, I will replace that online family tree as a source with a citation (and hopefully link) to the actual marriage record. I see absolutely no value in retaining the link to the online family tree.

I will retain information about, say, a genealogy published in 1887, but I might be more likely to put it under "See also" under the Sources section (assuming I have a stronger source for whatever fact it was used for). Wherever it is, I typically add a comment along the lines of: "use with caution; this publication does not cite its sources" or "subsequent research has revealed inaccuracies in this publication; use with caution." 

You do raise another interesting idea though-- using the narrative as a record of the research done on the person. The style guide says this about the purpose of the narrative:

At its most basic, the purpose of the narrative is to tell the story of your ancestor, by providing more detail about the vital statistics, including explanations and information about where you got the information (source citations).

The narrative can also be used to describe anything else you think would help a reader understand the person or that would help someone else who may be researching the same family or a family with similar characteristics. For example, when and/or why the spelling of a surname changed.

While this purpose does make reference to "explanations and information about where you got the information (source citations)," it does not specifically indicate that the narrative be used as a record of research done, which is a different type of document. (These are the kinds of articles published in NGS Quarterly and VERY interesting to read if you're interested in the research process.)

With the exception of what goes under "Disputed Origins" (where's it's vital to understand the research that has been done to address the dispute), I'm not sure what place recording the research done has in a wikitree profile. Not that it's a bad idea, but does it belong in the narrative? I don't know. 

Interesting to think about. What do others think?

Kitty, I'd love to see examples of profiles that serve as a record of research (outside of "Disputed Origins" sections). Could you offer some links? I'd love to see what you're wanting to protect. Thanks.
You got me there, Jillaine.  I can not give you an example because I try not to delete sources, good, bad or indifferent, from the profiles where they reside.  However, I think you understand my point.  I think it is important to retain all the sources that have been used to research a particular profile so that everyone knows what has been reviewed, and what might be new information.

I grant you, the PGM profiles have been exhaustively researched by NEHGS and others, so there is a wealth of well documented information available for most of them.  This is not the case for the other 8 million profiles in the database.  I feel that the sources should remain on the profile with comments about questionable resources added to the biography or as a public bulletin board comment.  Why do you prefer to replace rather than add to?  I think I missed the "why".

As you say, I hope others will chime in here. To replace weak sources or leave them and add stronger sources, . . . that is the question.  I think.  What do others think?

A few why's:

  • I don't want to promote what I feel are really inferior sources-- the US & International Marriages Records that started this thread, being one; the Millennium File, being another. They make me shudder because Ancestry.com makes them look official and valid when they're not much better than unsourced family trees with a pretty name put on them. 
  • As I wrote above, I don't see the purpose of the profile's narrative as documenting the research as much as documenting the person (with the exception of the disputed origins section). 
  • Related: if I can cite a strong source for a birth, marriage, death, etc., that directly supports the fact, then that should be sufficient for another person. When the evidence is indirect, multiple sources may be needed, but I would list multiple sources for the purpose of supporting the evidence, not for the purpose of listing every possible place I looked.
    • As I'm writing, I'm realizing that this comes from my experience publishing an article with NEHGS, and with doing the homework for the NGS home study course, as well as other genealogy courses I've taken. The point is to prove or otherwise make the case for or against a given set of data. You only need the number of sources that make the case.
      • CAVEAT: When there are conflicting sources: you have to deal with that, but again, for the purposes of making the case for or against something. For example: you might have a birth certificate that identifies the parents and John and Mary; but a baptism record two days later that names the parents Mark and Jane. You can't ignore one because you have a preference for the other. But again, the focus here is still on making the case for a person's history, not listing all possible places you looked. 

Hope this helps explain my viewpoint.


For everyone....the reason I posted the link yesterday is to raise awareness of the issue.  The whole realm of genealogy has had a lot of newcomers and WE are all learning.   Like Jillaine, I shudder when people think that some of the Ancestry.com sources are "original" sources for information.   That said, sometimes they are the only data available and sometimes they are correct....just not original sources.
It does, thanks Jillaine.  However, we are not doing homework here.  When you are writing an article, preparing a brief, or doing homework, you want your resources to be on-point, relevant, and to the highest authority you can find.  

We are doing something different on WikiTree.  We are collaborating across time and distance on improving the profiles. The only way I have of knowing which resources have already been researched is to have a list of the good and bad resources already consulted, perhaps a couple of years ago, perhaps decades ago.

I still ask that resources not be removed from any profiles so I know what has already been considered and so as to not inadvertantly offend a fellow WikiTreer.  I think it is very important to correct errors with a comment in the biography or the public bulletin board, but I think it is equally important to know where the questioned information came from originally.  Of course, I hope the clean-up and improvement will continue, I just hate to lose the research trail in the process.

how would you propose to organize on the page both weak or inaccurate sources and stronger sources on a given profile? That's why I asked for examples of profiles you've seen that do this. Are you suggesting a == Research History == section?

I do see wikitree profiles as a type of published article. And per the current style guide the purpose is to tell the story of the ancestor and to cite the sources we use to tell as accurate a story as the sources allow us.

And the purpose of various projects is to get the profiles into good shape following the style guide.

The Changes tab records the history of the edits and could be turned to for that. Or perhaps a separate section.

But now I'm concerned that this has become a conversation between you and me.  I'd like to hear from others.
I agree, Jillaine, that we need others to express their preferences.  Thank you for a lively discussion.

Kitty, I have recently become aware that certain members are offended when someone edits profiles they manage and deletes or changes their work. So I've been thinking about the issue for the past couple of days in particular.

When I first started at WikiTree I joined the Profile of the Week Project. I learned so much from project members and the excellent profiles they submitted! It made me wish every profile on WikiTree could show such careful research and presentation.

This, and your conversation with Jillaine on the difference between a Biography and a Research History, leads me to examine our goals and methods at WikiTree. After reading "About WikiTree" and "Community Membership" and even the Sources Style Guide, I have not found anything that clearly guides me in deleting a derivative source such as Millenium File.

I agree with the concept, just saying 'do we have a written policy with guidelines' for it? If we did have such a policy, how would a member differentiate between say, one of those undocumented family histories you mentioned, and well sourced work such Hale, House and RElated Families by Jacobus and Waterman?

Just to be clear though, Jillaine, please add or delete whatever you wish from profiles I manage! You too Kitty.

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