Evidence or Proof?

How to Apply the Genealogical Proof Standard to Your Family Tree

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There is nothing more frustrating to a genealogist than locating details on an ancestor in a published book, Web page, or database, only to later find that the information is full of errors and inconsistencies. Grandparents are often linked as parents, women bear children at the tender age of 6, and often entire branches of a family tree are attached based on nothing more than a hunch or guess. Sometimes you may not even discover the problems until quite some time later, leading you to spin your wheels struggling to confirm inaccurate facts, or researching ancestors who aren't even yours.

What can we as genealogists do to

a) be sure that our family histories are as well-researched and accurate as possible; and

b) educate others so that all of these inaccurate family trees don't continue to procreate and multiply?

How can we prove our family tree connections and encourage others to do the same? This is where the Genealogical Proof Standard established by the Board for Certification of Genealogists comes in.

Genealogical Proof Standard

As outlined in "Genealogy Standards" by the Board for Certification of Genealogists, the Genealogical Proof Standard consists of five elements:

  • A reasonably exhaustive search for all pertinent information
  • A complete and accurate citation to the source of each item used
  • Analysis of the collected information's quality as evidence
  • Resolution of any conflicting or contradictory evidence
  • Arrive at a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion

A genealogical conclusion that meets these standards can be considered proved.

It may still not be 100% accurate, but it is as close to accurate as we can attain given the information and sources available to us.

Sources, Information & Evidence

When collecting and analyzing the evidence to "prove" your case, it is important to first understand how genealogists use sources, information and evidence.

Conclusions which meet the five elements of the Genealogical Proof Standard will generally continue to hold as true, even if new evidence is uncovered. The terminology used by genealogists is also a little different than what you may have learned in history class. Instead of using the terms primary source and secondary source, genealogists quantify the difference between sources (original or derivative) and the information that is derived from them (primary or secondary). 

  • Original vs. Derivative Sources
    Referring to the provenance of the record, original sources are records that contribute written, oral, or visual information not derived - copied, abstracted, transcribed, or summarized - from another written or oral record. Derivative sources are, by their definition, records which have been derived - copied, abstracted, transcribed, or summarized - from previously existing sources. Original sources usually carry more weight than derivative sources.
     
  • Primary vs. Secondary Information
    Referring to the quality of the information contained within a particular record, primary information comes from records created at or near the time of an event with information contributed by a person who had reasonably close knowledge of the event. Secondary information, by contrast, is information found in records created a significant amount of time after an event occurred or contributed by a person who was not present at the event. Primary information usually carries more weight than secondary information.
     
  • Direct vs. Indirect Evidence
    Evidence only comes into play when we ask a question and then consider whether the information found in a particular record answers that question. Direct evidence is information that directly answers your question (e.g. When was Danny born?) without a need for other evidence to explain or interpret it. Indirect evidence, on the other hand, is circumstantial information that requires additional evidence or thought to convert it into a reliable conclusion. Direct evidence usually carries more weight than indirect evidence.

These classes of sources, information and evidence are rarely as clear-cut as they sound since information found in one particular source can be either primary or secondary. For example, a death certificate is an original source containing primary information directly relating to the death, but may also provide secondary information regarding items such as the deceased's date of birth, parent's names, and even children's names.

If the information is secondary, it will have to be further assessed based on who provided that information (if known), whether or not the informant was present at the events in question, and how closely that information correlates with other sources.

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Are the Ancestors Hanging From Your Family Tree Really Your Own?

  1. A reasonably exhaustive search for all pertinent information
    The keyword here is "reasonably." Does this mean that you have to locate and interpret every record or source available for your ancestor? Not necessarily. What it does assume, however, is that you have examined a wide range of high quality sources which relate to your specific genealogical question (identity, event, relationship, etc.). This helps to minimize the probability that undiscovered evidence will overturn a too-hasty conclusion down the road.
     
  1. A complete and accurate citation to the source of each item used
    If you don't know where a piece of evidence came from, how can you evaluate it? For this reason it is very important to document all sources as you find them. Keeping track of sources also provides the side benefit that fellow researchers can easily locate the same sources in order to verify your information and conclusions for themselves. It is very important in this step to record all sources that you have examined, whether or not they provided any new facts for your family tree. These facts which seem useless now, may provide new connections down the road when combined with other sources. See Citing Your Sources for more details on how to best document the many different types of sources used by genealogists.
     
  2. Analysis of the collected information's quality as evidence
    This is probably the most difficult step for most people to grasp. In order to evaluate the quality of your evidence, it is first important to determine how likely the information is to be accurate. Is the source original or derivative? Is the information contained in that source primary or secondary? Is your evidence direct or indirect? It is not always cut and dried. While primary information provided by an original source may seem the most conclusive, the individuals who created that record may have erred in their statements or recording, lied about certain details, or omitted pertinent information. On the other hand, a derivative work which expands on the original through further, careful research of alternative sources to fill in holes and inconsistencies, may be more dependable than the original itself. The goal here is to apply sound interpretation of the data contributed by each source based on its own merits.
     
  1. Resolution of any contradictory or conflicting evidence
    When evidence is contradictory the problem of proof because more complex. You will need to determine just how much weight the conflicting evidence carries in relation to the evidence which supports your hypothesis. In general, each piece of evidence needs to be reevaluated in terms of its likelihood to be accurate, the reason it was created in the first place, and its corroboration with other evidence. If major conflicts still exist, you may have to take a step back and do another search for additional records.
     
  1. Arrive at a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion
    Basically, this means to arrive at and document the conclusion that is best supported by the evidence. If conflicts arose which have still not been resolved, then an argument needs to constructed to provide well-grounded reasons why the contradictory evidence is less credible than the bulk of the remaining evidence.