Saturday, June 11, 2011

Archival Documents: is their information accurate?

Primary sources - documents or other items created within the same date parameters as the events to which they pertain - are usually of greater value than secondary evidence. The difficulty is that primary evidence has to be interpreted by the historian. These records were made for a particular, generally an official, purpose which had nothing to do with the future pursuit of genealogy or any other academic study. Because of their nature such records require careful attention on the part of the researcher.

There are pitfalls. Some records held at archive repositories may not fall into the category of primary evidence. A proportion of archived material consists of accessions i.e. transcripts, letters, photographs and other items acquired from/donated by family historians or people with an interest in local history etc. These accessions are a different kettle of fish from public records generated for 'official' reasons or for legal purposes. However, even the information contained in the latter documents may not always be strictly reliable.

In the South African context a deceased estate file could be one of the most useful finds for a family historian, and certainly these file types are well worth accessing. Most people view only the Death Notice, which is a great pity because anything worth doing is worth doing properly: all the contents of an estate file should be seen. It's surprising how many helpful clues emerge.

But it is accepted that a Death Notice may contain errors as well as omissions. This is because the details were provided by an informant who may or may not have been the deceased's next-of-kin. Sometimes the informant was a boarding-house or hotel-keeper with no intimate knowledge of the deceased. During the Anglo-Boer War, two Death Notices for the same individual might be compiled: one by the Adjutant of the army or hospital camp where the death occurred and another more informative version issued later. Even the next-of-kin might have had only a sketchy idea of certain facts about the deceased: in the colonies, a spouse could well not remember her husband's English parents' names or even his precise place of birth. There are occasional instances of deliberate disinformation, though not easy to detect a couple of generations later.

Among archived Bell family papers is a letter written by George Cato, a prominent Durban citizen, shortly after the death of  Captain William Bell. If I had relied on the information given in that letter concerning Bell's children, several errors would have been perpetuated on my family tree. This despite the fact that George and William were close friends for about forty years. When Bell as master of the schooner Conch was trading during the 1830s in coastal waters between the Cape and Natal, he and George Cato were associated with the agent John Owen Smith of Algoa Bay (Port Elizabeth).

William Bell and the Conch mentioned in the South African Commercial Advertiser, April 1837.
Note that as usual steerage passengers are not named.

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