Methodology: How Strong Is Your Genealogical Evidence?

Whether researching a straightforward ancestor in the family tree or diligently seeking records on a more elusive family, genealogists need to evaluate their research findings before accepting evidence as fact.

Here’s an example from my own family – every record of my mother’s birth, from her birth certificate to military record to her death certificate, gives her birth date as 7 June.

On its face, I’d say that is very convincing evidence that she was born on 7 June.

However, there is one outlier that indicates she was born on 6 June, not 7 June. In order to evaluate this possibility, I need to consider the source of the record. In this case, it’s my maternal grandmother, who most definitely was present at the moment my mother was born.

Grandmother shared a quick story – Mom was born very close to midnight and no one was paying attention to the time. After Mom was born, Dr. Stuart, my grandfather’s first cousin, decided to record her birth as 7 June. Grandmother said, in reality, no one was sure if she was born just BEFORE midnight on the 6th or just AFTER midnight on the 7th.

While the question of birth on 6 or 7 June has no practical effect on Mom’s life, I believe it’s just as possible that she was born during the last few minutes of 6 June.

Grandmother was an exceptionally reliable witness and source of information.

How Do You Evaluate Genealogical Evidence?

Researchers need to carefully evaluate each genealogical record to determine how trustworthy its information is. Is the record primary, created at the time of the event? Even that might contain incorrect or questionable details, as seen with my mother’s birth date. Was it created long after an event, such as late birth registration filed decades after the event as World War II began? It the record a transcription or abstract or from an index, which might be tainted by human or computer error?

The Genealogical Proof Standard

Whether a researcher is professional by trade or more of a hobbyist, it is important that he/she carefully review evidence. If the research question is simple, pertaining to one person or family, determining the quality of a record is simple.

However, for more complex research questions, all researchers should look to the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) to draw conclusions based on the evidence.

Professional genealogists use one of two formats to write conclusions based on their research – a Proof Summary or a Proof Argument.

A Proof Summary is the explanation of what sources were used to allow the researcher to draw conclusions when there is NO conflicting evidence.

For non-professional genealogists, it is more likely that a mental review might take place, after which we accept certain facts as reliable.

A Proof Argument is written when both direct and indirect evidence has been found and provides a written discussion of the analysis and evaluation of all pieces of evidence, particularly conflicting evidence and the conclusions that can be drawn from that process.

While no genealogist writes proof arguments for every single research question, it is a very helpful process to sort out difficult research findings.

How to Write a Proof Argument

Creating a timeline isn’t an official part of the Proof Argument process, but it is a helpful way to organize each piece of information.

  1. Write the research question. [e.g. Which German village was home to Johannes Whitmer and wife Maria, who settled in Frederick County, Maryland by 1760?]
  2. List each piece of evidence from your timeline.
  3. Analyze the quality of each piece of evidence. Is it a primary document, family lore? Who created the record?
  4. Which records support the same conclusion? Which pieces of evidence conflict?
  5. Draw conclusions based on the sources of evidence and the facts recorded in them.
  6. Resolve conflicting evidence.
  7. Summarize your conclusions.

This is a simplification of many repetitive steps of the Proof Argument process, but it works for those in a non-professional capacity.

Following this WRITTEN process will allow researchers to properly analyze their findings and create viable future research avenues.

I’d highly recommend two books your genealogy reference shelf. Both are written in an easy reading style, concise and to the point.

Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case by Christine Rose, purchase online for $15.00

Genealogical Standards, Second Edition Revised by the Board for Certification of Genealogists, purchase used from $15 or new from $22

Now, try writing your first Proof Argument. The process really does work!

2 thoughts on “Methodology: How Strong Is Your Genealogical Evidence?”

  1. When other family trees show a date or other conclusion that isn’t as strongly supported by credible evidence, we can use a brief proof argument to explain our conclusions, and add to our tree on FamSearch and other sites. This will help others understand how we got to our conclusions!

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