Tag Archives: Methodology

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!

How Incorrect “Facts” Multiply in Online Family Trees

Have you ever wondered what the source is for undocumented “facts” found in many online family trees? Well, here is a first-person example of where a “fact” originates and what happens after one or a handful of researchers comes across it.

If you’re a regular reader, you’re aware that I’ve spent almost two years working on cleaning up my genealogy software program. Cleaning up is an all-encompassing term, because it includes updating and adding collateral ancestors in the family tree. Those ancestors have been compiled in about a half dozen Word files in which I’ve traced all known ancestors of several interesting ancestors.

One such ancestor is my Loyalist, James Astle, who married Elizabeth McLane in Schenectady, New York in 1770 and was classed as a refugee on the 1783 passenger lists to Canada.

I descend from James’s son, Daniel, born 1783 in Sorel, Quebec, an early residence of the Astle family after they left New York. Daniel’s wife, Jane, is the subject of this post about supposed “facts.”

My method for updating my Word family histories is to begin with the FamilySearch Family Tree, looking for additional information that is either sourced or for which I can look for sources.

Let me begin by saying I left no stone unturned back in the 1980s when I first started compiling the Astle family information. I even hired a highly regarded New Brunswick researcher to help me. I can definitively say that NO primary document has ever been found that confirms Jane (MNU) Astle’s maiden name. Nothing, nada, zip!!!!

Take a look at the FS Family Tree entry for Daniel Astle:

Next, I took a look at Ancestry family trees:

Notice that the FS Family Tree and the Ancestry Family Trees all point to Jane’s maiden name being Parker. In fact, my Daniel Astle is found in 203 Ancestry trees and a quick browse showed that 14 of the 21 pages included Daniel’s wife’s name and almost every single entry called her Jane Parker. None of the trees – ZERO – cited a primary source. So, this appears to be a mystery to others, but not to me. I – me, myself and I – am the source of this Parker information.

How did this come to be? That answer is quite simple, too. Years ago, in 1994, I donated a copy of my Astle research to the FamilySearch Library. I am proud of that work, which, at the time, was 21 pages long with footnotes citing 114 sources. At some point, one or more researchers read my work and, from it, posted that Jane Parker was the wife of Daniel Astle. However, either their reading comprehension was lacking or they had selective retention because this is what I actually said, clipped from my original text:

The two very important words that readers ignored and copy-and-paste family historians never even read are: CIRCUMSTANTIAL CLUES. I further identified Jane in the following family sketch with a question mark concerning her maiden name:

And that, my readers, is one way that the misinformation rabbits multiply!

Don’t Make These Genealogy Mistakes!

Whether a beginning family historian or a more experienced genealogical researcher, we all make mistakes. However, there are a number of mistakes that can be easily avoided.

Here is my list of DON’Ts:

  1. Don’t keep your only family tree in an online website! This is a must! Keep control of your work by using a genealogical software program. Share your tree wherever you like, but keep your main tree on your own computer.
  2. Don’t add information found in online trees to your own tree without verifying that it is fact. Just because the information is included in 394 online trees doesn’t make it true!
  3. Don’t limit your database searches to the home page of a website where you enter a name, birth year and place, etc. Take the time to learn what records are available on the website. FamilySearch, for example, has many digital files available to view online that are not linked to its front page search boxes.
  4. Don’t be the person who says they don’t share anything because it’s his/her own work. I actually know persons who have said, “I found it. It’s mine” and refuse to share information.
  5. Don’t ignore messages received from other subscribers through the big genealogy subscriptions websites. You never know who has the tidbit of information or the document you desperately want to find. They might even have family member photos of your ancestors!
  6. Don’t be discouraged because you can’t read the language in which a record is written. There is lots of online help, especially in Facebook genealogy groups. I’ve gotten help with Scandinavian translations there in under 5 minutes!
  7. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about records. I’ve called/emailed libraries and archives, small and large, to request information. Not to do research, but to ask about a record set or the possibility of retrieving/scanning a single record.
  8. Don’t cast a narrow net. Sometimes, collateral lines – siblings and cousins – will answer your toughest questions.
  9. Don’t assume that everyone with a unique surname is related. They might be, but they might not. On the other hand, don’t disregard surnames spelled differently than your surname of interest. I’ve found “Robertson” spelled three different ways in the same document! Also, DNA matches have proved many times over that same name/different spelling peoples are related.
  10. Last, but not least, don’t think it doesn’t exist if you can’t find it online. There probably won’t ever be a time when everything is online. Take the time to delve into the records yourself!