Consider the Source: Original, Derivative, or Copy

Experienced genealogists are always aware that they must verify information by looking at original documents or a microfilm or digital image of an original document. We should know better than to believe a statement on a web site, in a genealogy book, or a verbal statement from Aunt Tilley about the “facts” of our family trees. However, what is the definition of an “original document?”

Let’s take one well-known claim of an original document that isn’t really accurate: the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Almost all American schoolchildren are familiar with this document; and, if we paid attention in class, we know that the document is on display at the U.S. National Archives building in Washington, D.C. In fact, millions of us, myself included, have visited that building to view the document on display. However, how many of us were ever told that the document displayed in Washington is not the original, hand-written document? Instead, it is one of many copies that were produced on a printing press.

No, this isn’t a story plot from a Nicholas Cage movie. In fact, the document displayed at the National Archives building in Washington, D.C. is a copy made by Philadelphia printer John Dunlap, official printer to the Congress, during the evening of July 4, 1776, after the original, hand-written document was given to him. Admittedly, the original and the copies made by John Dunlap had no signatures. The “copy” now on display at the National Archives is the only copy that was actually signed by each delegate and therefore is the one that we can now refer to as the real Declaration of Independence. However, it was produced on a printing press and is not the original, hand-written piece of paper.

The Dunlap Broadside with no signatures

The original Declaration of Independence was written by hand by Thomas Jefferson. After making alterations to his draft as suggested by Ben Franklin and John Adams, Jefferson later recalled that, “I then wrote a fair copy, reported it to the Committee, and from them, unaltered, to Congress.”

The committee sent the hand-written manuscript document, probably Thomas Jefferson’s “fair copy” of his rough draft, to John Dunlap, official printer to the Congress. Dunlap printed the copies on the night of July 4, 1776. It is unknown exactly how many copies were printed, but the number is estimated at about 200. On the morning of July 5, copies were dispatched by members of Congress to various assemblies, conventions, and Committees of Safety as well as to the commanders of Continental troops. Also on July 5, a copy of the printed version of the approved Declaration was inserted into the “rough journal” of the Continental Congress for July 4. The text was followed by the words, “Signed by Order and in Behalf of the Congress, John Hancock, President. Attest. Charles Thomson, Secretary.”

Twenty-six copies are known to exist today of what is commonly referred to as “the Dunlap broadside,” 22 owned by American institutions, 3 by British institutions, and 1 by an unknown private owner. A list of their present locations may be found on Wikipedia at

All of these copies were unsigned as they were printed before approval had been granted by the 13 colonies. Each delegate had to await approval from his home colony before being allowed to sign.

Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. Declaration of Independence was not signed on July 4, 1776. While the document was APPROVED but not signed by the delegates on July 4, several weeks were required for the document to be printed and distributed to all 13 colonies for approval, and then some more time to re-assemble all the delegates again in Philadelphia. Delegates were not authorized to sign until after their home colony had approved the document and that required some time back in the days before instant communications.

One of the “Dunlap broadside” copies was signed by all the delegates in attendance on August 2, 1776, and that copy now is on display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Therefore, the document that most people think of as the U.S. Declaration of Independence is not the original, hand-written document. It is a copy, although it is the only SIGNED copy. The copy on display in Washington was printed on a printing press, but each delegate signed this one copy by hand.

If Thomas Jefferson’s memories were correct, and he indeed wrote out a fair copy which was shown to the drafting committee and then submitted to Congress on June 28, the original document has not been found. “If this manuscript still exists,” wrote historian Ted Widmer, “it is the holy grail of American freedom.” (Source citation for this statement: dozens of web sites. Start at

Preservation by the national Bureau of Standards in 1951 of the Declaration of Independence (shown) and the Constitution of the United States followed Year’s of research on the permanence of governmental documents. Light, heat, humidity, and many other factors were assessed, but the principal enemy of records proved to be the common air pollutant, sulphur dioxide.

What does this have to do with our searches for accurate genealogy information? A lot.

In all cases, we should strive to look at original documents or a microfilm or digital image of an original document. We then document our efforts by recording a “source citation” that refers to the location of the original document. In recent years, many genealogists also include a digital image of the appropriate part of the original document.

Wikipedia defines a citation this way: “Broadly, a citation is a reference to a published or unpublished source (not always the original source).”

Elizabeth Shown Mills, probably the leading expert of today when it comes to recording genealogy source citations, has written no less than two books on the subject for genealogists: Evidence Explained; Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace and Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian. Mills states that the best source is an original source, one created at the time an event occurred. However, she also states that a source can be either an original or derivative document. Let’s focus on the word “derivative.”

In the example of the Declaration of Independence, we note that the original, hand-written document has been lost. For all we know, printer John Dunlap may have tossed the original into a local trash can after he finished making his copies. Of course, that is just a guess. Nobody knows what happened to the hand-written original. However, the existing twenty-six copies still meet Elizabeth Shown Mills’ definition of an acceptable source citation. It is a “derivative document” that was made at nearly the same time as the original, probably within a few hours, and apparently is an exact copy of the original. Therefore, it is believable.

Of course, not all derivative documents are exact copies. For instance, let’s consider the U.S. Census records. In most cases, the enumerators (census takers) visited homes, asked questions, and wrote the answers in small notebooks or something similar that they carried with them. We can only imagine what the notebooks contained. Can you imagine the words written by an enumerator with poor handwriting, traveling around the countryside on horseback or on a small wagon in the 1800s and recording his words with a quill pen and ink of questionable quality? Some of these enumerators traveled in rain or sleet or snow. We have to assume that some of these pages got wet. Perhaps a few pages became unreadable or were even lost.

At a later time, the enumerator went home or to an office or perhaps to a local tavern, got out the official enumeration pages that we all know and love, and transcribed his findings from the notebooks to the worksheets. He then sent the worksheets to his superiors, where the worksheets became the official record. Most of the worksheets have been preserved while most of the notebooks were discarded.

What do we see today when we look the census records online? Do we see the enumerators’ hand-written notes from their workbooks, made at the time of each visit? Or are we viewing the official forms that were filled out later, also hand-written? You probably already know the answer: what we see online and in microfilms are images of documents made within hours or days AFTER the original visit. These are derivative documents.

There is nothing wrong with using a derivative document. In fact, it is all we have in most cases. A derivative document was made at or shortly after the original event by a person who had full knowledge of the facts involved. Genealogists will generally accept a derivative document as a suitable “original” source citation.

You can find thousands more examples of citing “original” sources that are really derivative documents. Most birth records made by town clerks prior to the twentieth century were recorded by men or women who were not present at the birth. They weren’t midwives; they were town clerks! They recorded what was told to them by reliable witnesses, often the mother or father or perhaps the doctor or midwife in attendance at the birth. Marriage records were often the same. Town clerks may not have attended the marriage ceremony; but, in most cases, the clerks recorded information given to them at a later date by the clergyman who performed the ceremony.

The list goes on and on. Death records, military service records, and thousands of other documents were not recorded at the event by the individuals involved and often not within hours. Instead, these documents were recorded by clerks and clergymen and others shortly after the event and were based upon information provided by the principal(s) involved. In some cases the description was verbal while in other cases the clerks transcribed written information created earlier.

Land transfer records recorded in deed books were rarely written by the individuals who bought or sold land; the records were written by clerks who listened to the descriptions provided by the principals involved. Probate records typically were transcribed from original, often handwritten wills, often years after the will was written and always after the person who perhaps wrote the will had died.

While these may be derivative records, we still accept them as primary source citations.

NOTE: In contrast, secondary sources are generally those records created after a passage of time. Examples include an elderly person recounting events in his or her youth or an author of a genealogy book recording the life events of people who have been dead for many years or other people whom he or she has never met. Secondary sources are never as reliable as primary sources.

Now that we have examined both kinds of primary sources (original and derivative) as well as secondary sources, a question arises: Just how reliable are derivative (primary) sources?

Genealogists generally consider primary sources to be reliable, including derivative sources. After all, these records were made at or shortly after the event and were recorded by eyewitnesses or, in the case of derivative records, by transcribers who were given information by eyewitnesses. Yes, we all know that eyewitness reports occasionally contain errors, but are usually correct.

How about derivative records where the information was recorded by a third party, using information provided by eyewitnesses? Can we really trust the enumerator’s record made some hours or days or even a few weeks after visiting our ancestors? Could he read his own writing, smudged from rain or melting snow? If he was sitting at a fireplace in a warm and cozy tavern, already having consumed a few drinks, can we believe his written recollection of a visit made a few days earlier? Did the residents give him correct information? Or did he obtain his info from a neighbor who may or may not have known all the correct answers?

When an eyewitness provided information to a clerk, can we always believe that both parties understood clearly what was said and the information recorded by the clerk is a true and faithful recording of the facts provided by the eyewitness?

For an example, I will offer the 1910 census record for my great-grandparents in a small town in northern Maine. The enumerator lived in the same town and recorded his own family on another page of the same census. (That is one record that I would believe!) The enumerator wrote his own place of birth as “Scotland.” Therefore, we can assume that he spoke with a Scottish accent, perhaps a very strong accent.

My great-grandparents were Joe and Sophie Theriault. (My great-grandfather was often listed in many records as Joe, but never listed as Joseph.) “Theriault” is a common Acadian French-Canadian name. The enumerator recorded that neither of them was able to speak English. Can you imagine that conversation? A Scotsman with his accent trying to ask questions and obtain answers from someone who could not speak English? It is no wonder that their last name was recorded as “Tahrihult.”

To make matters worse, there was another married couple in the same small town with the same names: Joseph and Sophie Theriault. However, they were listed with different children and different dates of birth and marriage. The same enumerator then spelled their last name correctly! I assume the correct information was recorded for them because the enumerator listed them as being able to speak English. That should have been an easier, and probably more complete, conversation. Yet all of these are derivative records, written by the same enumerator a few hours or days after his interview and assisted by the notes he made in his notebook.

Similar errors have been repeated thousands of times in census records and probably elsewhere as well.

Let’s return to the original question: How accurate are derivative records where the information was recorded by a third party, using information provided by eyewitnesses?

I believe the only correct answer is: Derivative records made at or shortly after the event are generally correct, but we should always be aware that there are exceptions. All derivative records should be treated as “probably correct”–with a strong emphasis on the word PROBABLY.


Nice essay, thanks for posting. Priests in Poland (at least those in the German partition) were required to make multiple copies of their records for civil and church authorities. When using the microfilmed/digitized records it is not uncommon to find discrepancies. I always hope for the earliest copy, though there’s not always a way to tell. The LDS will often have photographed the multiple copies stored in various archives and assigned different film numbers so that comparisons can be made.

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I was not educated in a United State of America, so what I learned of history dealt with the war preceding the declaration rather than the arrangements for the latter. If, as you write, approval of the document by each of the governing bodies of the thirteen colonies was required before the declaration took effect, then surely the signed document, copies of which were given that approval, is the original, and the manuscript that Jefferson sent to the printer was the final draft.
It may be noted that facsimiles of the original schedules (written in most cases by the respective householders) of the 1911 census of Great Britain are available. We may form our own opinions as to their accuracy and the extent to which the householders understood the instructions. It is possible also to see the originals, or facsimiles, of many English wills, instead of relying on register copies, but this can involve some extra trouble if the will was proved before the days of electrostatic copying. The differences in ordering English marriage certificates from superintendent registrars or clergy on the one hand or the General Register Office on the other are well known, with which is likely to produce a more accurate result being a matter of guesswork.
Of course most of the documents on which we rely were produced after the events that they mention. British registers of electors are a partial exception. For years, local authorities have urged us to register well before the qualifying date, and now we do not have even to do that if there are no changes to the details that have been given. As a result, there are plenty of appearances of names of those who had died before the relevant dates, which were themselves earlier than those when the registers took effect.
Jeremy Wilkes


I am very confused by this column. The signed Declaration of Independence that is prominently displayed at the National Archives (and what most of us picture when we think of the Declaration of Independence) is not a signed Dunlap broadside. It is a (handwritten) engrossed copy of the Declaration prepared by the clerk of the Congress for signature by the delegates, presumably based on the (lost) final draft prepared by Jefferson’s committee and adopted by the Congress.


Good points. One minor correction about the signed document. It was not a Dunlap copy. It was an engrossed copy, ordered by Congrrss on July 19. It is a hand-written copy, probably written by Clerk Timothy Matlack.


My great grandma has two different birth dates…the one recorded in the family bible ( the one I use) and the one recorded at the county level and beyond ( I don’t believe this one) recorded a year after the birth.
Ironically, she became a mid wife later in life.
Thanks for reminding us and for all you do.
Carole K.


    My great grandmother had 4 with different years – ALL of them “official”, birth, marriage, 1939 UK register, and death – and a baptism certificate birth year that coincided with her birth certificate, but which had a different day.


Interesting examples…and, FWIW, Canadian school children (at least of my generation) were/are also taught about the Declaration of Independence.

And one UK census, 1911, was filled out by the householder, not transcribed, so those returns are original…it’s so cool to see my ancestors’ handwriting and signatures 🙂


Errors still happen today! My father-in-law died a month ago. My sister-in-law (not a genealogist) wrote the obituary and gave his father’s third wife as his mother. It is possible that since the third wife was the only grandmother my brother-in-law ever knew that he had forgotten that his father’s mother was the second wife who died when her son was three. I strongly suspect that the official death certificate is wrong too. You must check all sources.


    I have a similar story. After my grandmother died I was “allowed” to join my mother and her sister and brother-in-law to go over what was going to be read at the funeral. I heard her my grandmother’s mother’s name and knew something was wrong. I had lent my notebook with family group sheets to my aunt so I asked if she had it. My uncle got it out of the car. My aunt had mixed up my grandmother’s mother’s and grandmother’s names. The name given had parts of both. Since I had gotten the information from my grandmother I was believed and correction made on the death certificate.


I can offer another example of an original/derivative record that contains errors–an “affidavit of ownership” recorded in the Hanover County, Virginia, Deed Book 467, page 334.

However, the errors will not be readily apparent to someone unfamiliar with both legal “precedents” and standard legal phrasing.

This affidavit first claimed the signatories were the sole heir of their “grandmother”, who not only had only a “life estate” in the property–right to use the same only as long as she lived–given her husband died without leaving a will which had bequeathed the property to her, but as his second wife, was NOT THE GRANDMOTHER of the signatories.

Secondly, the signatories then claimed to be the sole heirs of a daughter of that “grandmother” by their grandfather without the standard disclaimer than she was deceased both intestate and without surviving issue. By the 1900 census, I easily established she left issue, but whether any issue was still alive in 1978 was rendered moot by the absence of a survey that could establish if a right-of-way through the property my client was seeking included any portion of her share of the property. Furthermore, in the absence of issue of this aunt living in 1978, the living issue of additional full-blood siblings of her half-blood brother would have a say in the granting of the right-of-way if the same passed through her share of the property.

Finally, the signatories claimed to be the sole heirs of their father, when census, marriage records, newspaper obituaries and other records clearly establish there were 8 full-blood siblings of the father who were deceased at the time of the filing of the affidavit, one of whom died less than a year earlier with an obituary that NAMED ALL FIVE SIGNATORIES TO THE AFFIDAVIT as survivors, and she, along with 5 other siblings, were SURVIVED BY ISSUE.


So – should the “official” Independence Day be celebrated, not on July 4th, but on August 2nd when all the authorized signatures were made?


So – should Independence Day be celebrated on August 2nd, rather than July 4th?


Thanks for the detailed discussion Dick. How should a photograph or photocopy (Xerox) of an original document (birth/death certificate signed by the attending physician…) be treated? Is it still considered an original? How about digital copies of true original documents? Would they be comparable to microfilm copies?


    —> How should a photograph or photocopy (Xerox) of an original document (birth/death certificate signed by the attending physician…) be treated? Is it still considered an original?

    For source citations, we have always treated microfilm copies of original records the same as original documents. I don’t see many differences between microfilm images and digital images. As long as it is readable and is clearly labeled as to its source, I don’t see any difference in the use of those documents.


The proliferation of indexes and other derivative sources with limited information and no access to the original is partly what’s driving all the “name’s the same” errors on Ancestry and other databases. And since some original records will remain difficult to access/read/interpret, it doesn’t look like this is problem is going to be solved anytime soon.


The art and science of figuring out the nature and provenance of documents, sometimes called “diplomatics” (there’s an interesting Wikipedia article on this topic), has turned out to be extremely important in my own research, especially for the medieval period. Documents frequently turn out not to be exactly what they seem to be, or even what archival inventories say they are. We have to be alert for clues in all aspects of a document: the paper, the ink, the handwriting, internal inconsistencies, how all of these features relate to other documents, the history of the document (where has it been? what have other sources said about it over the centuries?). Sometimes it takes a huge effort to come to a clear understanding of what an old document is really telling us. One important question that serves as a starting point is to ask, “Why, exactly, was this physical document created?” Once I realized that old documents may contain physical and contextual clues that bear on questions of authenticity, new possibilities opened up in interpreting them and unexpected stories began to emerge. Historical documents are fascinating!


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