Sunday, August 14, 2016

Note to self no. 1: Use triangulation in family history research

This is the first blogpost in a series I'm calling "Note to self: Use my day-job skills in my family history research", in an attempt to remind myself to use my day-job skills in my family history research.

So, here's a link to my first "note to self" blogpost. I hope to give myself a serious kick in the genealogical pants through writing this set of blogposts and, if other genies can benefit from posts, I'll be even more pleased.


A fair-dinkum educational researcher wouldn't be seen dead making a claim without some serious evidence. More than one piece of evidence is required to make a claim. Some call this "evidence-based research". Others call it common sense. So, sources of evidence are triangulated and compared against each other, just as maritime navigators use stars to work out where they are, so too do researchers come to work something out by comparing multiple sources.

In social science, including education, two or more sources of evidence are compared to validate or verify a claim or a research result. For example, data gathered from interviews can be analysed and compared with data gathered and analysed from questionnaires to validate the findings from each set of data.

The evidence may come from a multitude of sources and the quality of that evidence is also important, especially when quality is defined as reliability, trustworthiness, validity, credibility, transparency, etc.. I suppose the quality of evidence is also important in family history research. For example, the information on a person's death certificate is generally considered to be less accurate than the information on the same person's marriage certificate because the person is no longer with us after they are dead but we hope they are very much conscious when they sign their marriage certificate.

An example of triangulation

So, an example of triangulating your sources in family history research could be the comparison of four death records for one person. Despite the "tri-" in triangulation, you don't necessary need three pieces of evidence, you can use more or sometimes only two. For example, a few years ago, I was unsure of the death year of one of my great-uncles, Henry Augustus NEWTON. His grave recorded his death date as 1936 (see grave on the left below):

Henry NEWTON's gravestone, Field of Mars Cemetery, North Ryde, NSW
Photography: Maria NORTHCOTE

When I checked this "fact", that Henry NEWTON had died on 21 May 1936 at the age of 68 years, I found that I needed to dig a little deeper than the headstone on Henry's grave.

Henry Augustus NEWTON was the half-brother of my grand-father, Leo Bertie Bede NORTHCOTE. Out of all of the seven NORTHCOTE boys and their two half-brothers, the two NEWTON boys, Henry Augustus NEWTON was the eldest of the nine brothers, born about 1862, and Leo Bertie Bede NORTHCOTE, who was the youngest of these brothers, born in 1887.

To check other facts of Henry's death, I need to triangulate my first fact (his gravestone information) with other facts I had about his death, including:

  1. His funeral notice on page 9 of The Sydney Morning Herald on 22 May 1930, records his death as 21 May 1930.


                                                  The Sydney Morning Herald, page 9, 22 May 1930
  2. A reference to his funeral notice in The Sydney Morning Herald was also found in the Ryerson Index, noting that Henry NEWTON's funeral notice could be found on the  22 May 1930 newspaper edition. HE was described as being "late of Narromine".


                                              Reference to Henry NEWTON's funeral notice,
                                                 Ryerson Index, Accessed 14 August 2016
  3. Despite the date on his gravestone, the cemetery office records (accessed online through the Deceased Search: definitely show his date of death as 21 May 1930.

  4. Finally, Henry's death certificate provided further evidence that he died in 1930, not 1936.
                           Except from Henry NEWTON's death certificate 1930                                           NSW BDM no. 1930/7085

As a result of triangulating my data, I found that Henry NEWTON died in 1930, not 1936 as indicated on his gravestone. I think the error in his gravestone must have been made when another relative, was interred in Henry's grave in 1935. Perhaps the stonemason mis-transcribed the date of Henry's death when the gravestones were remade.

However, as many investigations in family history, some questions remain:

  • Did Henry die on 20, 21 or 22 May? The transcription of his death certificate records his death on 20 May whereas cemetery details and his gravestone record his death as 21 May.
  • Why was the year of his death on his gravestone incorrect?

For more about how this mystery was solved, see The mystery of Henry NEWTON's death date ... solving one mystery reveals other mysteries.

Take-away message

In conclusion, don't be too quick to grab a fact and treat it as true when researching your family's history. Don't believe everything you hear, see or read, especially if you only have one source of information. When you come across a new "fact", try wherever possible to compare this fact against other sources. This process will make you feel more confident about your research conclusions and it will make your family history research conclusions more robust. Also, by recording the sources of your information, this will increase the credibility of your research findings and make them more trackable.

No comments:

Post a Comment