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Get to the source…

The Legal Genealogist was powerfully reminded this morning of that basic tenet of genealogy.

Go for the original.

The very best derivative sources in the world — those copies of originals, or copies of copies of originals — even done by competent people can have errors creep in that will drive us bonkers.

We need always to go for the original.

Moore guardianship

Today’s case in point.

I’m starting to chase my newly-connected fourth great grandparents, Joseph and Rebecca Moore.1 It’s clear from the records that the Moore family as a whole lived first in North Carolina,2 then in Kentucky and finally — after Joseph’s death in Kentucky in 18203 — in Mississippi.4

So… out on the internet for a literature search I go and I come across what appears superficially to be a well-documented family history. And it says, in part, that Joseph “was listed as Alexander Coulter Sr’s ward in April 1778 at Tryon County, North Carolina.”5

Now Tryon is tryin’… because it’s one of those here-to-day-gone-tomorrow counties. Created in 1769 on the western side of Mecklenburg County and eliminated in 1779 when Lincoln and Rutherford Counties were created.6 In short, 10 years worth of colonial records, and that’s it.

On the other hand, because it’s only 10 years worth of colonial records, there are some pretty good abstracts of those records and one of those sets of abstracts is cited as the source for this statement.

And that’s why I said, up above, that this family history “appears superficially to be … well-documented.” All of the source citations are to derivative sources. To what’s at best a second generation version of the record: a set of abstracts. Somebody’s transcription of a record. Even a lot of private correspondence where the source used by the correspondent isn’t identified. There’s no indication that original documents were ever reviewed.

Uh oh.

This ain’t good, folks.

Our standards teach us that we want to do “thorough research” that “emphasizes original records containing primary information.”7 That “(w)henever possible, genealogists prefer to reason from original records that reliable scribes carefully created soon after the reported events.”8

Relying on a set of abstracts (derivative source) that’s cited on a website (a second level derivative source) is Not A Good Idea.

So I want to track this information down. Can I verify this?

Frankly this should be a piece of cake. Many of the original records of Old Tryon County have been digitized and are now available on, for example, FamilySearch. Off to FamilySearch I go and — joy!! — there are multiple filmings of the entire 10-year run of the Court of Common Pleas and Quarter Sessions of Tryon County.9

And it’s off to the races, reading every entry in the 23 pages of minutes of the April 1778 court session.

Which do not contain one single word about any guardianship of Joseph Moore.

Okay, maybe it’s really April 1777. Um… no.

April 1779? Um… no.

Any April term of court at all? Um… no.


January 1778? No.

July 1778?


The guardianship is there: on the second page of minutes titled “At a Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions and held for the Court of Tryon on the Twentieth Day of July A D 1778” is the entry that “Joseph Moore came into open Court and being of Lawful Age to choose his Guardian made choice of Alexander Coulter who Entered into Bond & Security in the sum of Five Hundred Pounds.”10

Not April. July. Not Alexander Senior, just Alexander.

Are those critical differences?

Here’s the point: I don’t know yet. But they could be. At a minimum, it pushes back by several months the minority status of Joseph — he wouldn’t have needed a guardian if he’d turned 21, so he couldn’t have been 21 by July, rather than by April. And it tells me he might not have turned 14 — the age to choose a guardian — before July rather than before April.

The reality is, we never know at the outset how important in the long run a single tiny detail is going to end up being.

And that’s just one more reason why we always always always want to get to the source.

Go for the original.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Go for the original,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 11 Mar 2021).


  1. See Judy G. Russell, “Landing the fourths,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 22 Dec 2020 ( : accessed 11 Mar 2021).
  2. See the birthplaces shown on the 1850 census record of Burt Greenberry Moore, 1850 U.S. census, Itawamba County, Mississippi, population schedule, p. 404A (stamped), dwelling/family 363, Burt G Moore; digital image, ( : accessed 11 Mar 2021); imaged from NARA microfilm M432, roll 373. Also, for John M Moore, 1850 U.S. census, Itawamba County, Miss., pop. sched., p. 438B (stamped), dwelling/family 23, John M Moore. And for Alexander Moore: 1850 U.S. census, Lowndes County, Mississippi, population schedule, p. 66A (stamped), dwelling/family 249, Alexander Moore; digital image, ( : accessed 11 Mar 2021); imaged from NARA microfilm M432, roll 376.
  3. Caldwell County, Kentucky, Court Order Book (C): 244, letters of administration on estate of Joseph Moore, November Term 1820; digital images, “Order books, 1809-1915,” FamilySearch ( : accessed 11 Mar 2021). Note that there are two books designated as Book A; this volume is actually volume C.
  4. See those same census records cited above, for example.
  5. You’ll forgive me please if I don’t identify this website. I’m not out to embarrass anybody, just to make a point.
  6. See John H. Long, Editor, North Carolina: Individual County Chronologies: Tryon (extinct), North Carolina Atlas of Historical County Boundaries, The Newberry Library ( : accessed 11 Mar 2021).
  7. Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards 2d ed. (Nashville TN :, 2019), 14, Standard 17, “Extent.”
  8. Ibid. at 23, Standard 38, “Source preference.”
  9. E.g., “Court minutes of Tryon County, 1769-1779,” FamilySearch ( : accessed 11 Mar 2021).
  10. Ibid., Minutes of the July 1778 session.
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