The Genealogical Proof Standard tells us that we need to conduct reasonably exhaustive research in order for our work to be credible. If you’ve ever wondered just what constitutes “reasonable” (and if your family tree is up to snuff) my guest author Kate Eakman, professional genealogist at Legacy Tree Genealogists, has answers.
Professional Genealogist Kate Eakman explains evidence on the Genealogy Gems blog.
Genealogical Evidence: Have You Got What It Takes?
How do we know when we have compiled enough evidence to constitute proof?
Is a birth certificate or an autosomal DNA test result sufficient to declare this person is the child of that person?
Must we collect every record regarding an individual – the deeds, the tax lists, the newspaper clippings, the census reports – before we can declare a familial connection?
The Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS)
The Genealogy Proof Standard (GPS) directs us to perform reasonably exhaustive research, which requires that we identify and review all available records related to an individual. This is being as thorough and accurate as possible and is a goal toward which we should all aspire in our genealogical research.
But, let’s be honest: most of us do not want to spend weeks or months (or even years) documenting one person before moving on to the next individual. We don’t want to know every detail of grandpa’s life before we turn to grandma.
We want to build a family tree which accurately provides us with the names of our ancestors so that we can identify our immigrant ancestor, or join a lineage society, or enjoy the satisfaction that comes from a balanced tree extending back a hundred years or more.
We want to be thorough and accurate, but we also want to make some progress. How do we balance the need for accuracy with the desire for results? How do we determine the necessary quality and quantity of evidence for our research?
Below are some guidelines to demonstrate how we can go about compiling the necessary information to say with confidence “this person is my ancestor.”
Genealogical Evidence Guidelines
1. One record/source is never enough.
Any one piece of data can say anything. A mother might lie on her child’s birth certificate for a number of reasons. A grieving spouse might not correctly recall the information for a husband or wife’s death certificate. There are typos and omissions and messy handwriting with which to contend. Even a lone DNA test is not sufficient evidence to prove a family connection.
We need multiple sources, and different kinds of sources, which corroborate the details of the others.
A single source is not enough. A marriage license does not guarantee that John and Griselda married. Photo courtesy https://newspapers.com.
A census report and autosomal DNA test results.
A deed and a will.
A birth certificate and an obituary.
Or, better still, a birth certificate, a census report, a deed, a will, an obituary, and autosomal DNA test results.
2. The more contemporary the source is to the person or event in question, the better.
Records of events made immediately after the event tend to be more accurate, and provide better details, than records created months or years later. As time passes, details become fuzzy, two events can be confused with each other, and our memories fade.
The passage of time between an event and the record of the event also allows for some revisionist history to creep in.
Here are some examples:
A birth year is adjusted to make someone appear older or younger in order to avoid the draft, enlist in the military, mask a dramatic age difference between spouses, or conceal an out-of-wedlock birth.
An obituary ignores the deceased’s first marriage because of some embarrassment associated with that marriage.
A census report enumerates everyone in the household as natives of Stepney, London, when they really were born in Stepney, and Hackney, and Whitechapel, which explains why the baptismal records can’t be found in Stepney.
According to this obituary for Griselda, she was the widow of Willis Tenney, not John Wise. It appears Griselda and John did not marry after all. Photo courtesy https://newspapers.com.
According to this obituary for Griselda, she was the widow of Willis Tenney, not John Wise. It appears Griselda and John did not marry after all. Photo courtesy https://newspapers.com.
This is particularly true when it comes to autosomal DNA testing. My autosomal DNA is more useful for identifying my ancestors than is my son’s because I am one generation closer to those ancestors. This is the reason we encourage people to test the oldest members of their family first: their DNA has the potential to be the most useful simply because they are from an earlier generation (or two).
3. It is okay to make appropriate assumptions, but be careful!
In genealogical research we must sometimes make assumptions. When research theories are based on logical reasoning, it is perfectly acceptable to make those appropriate suppositions.
Determining which assumptions are appropriate can be simple: the two-year-old child enumerated in the home of a 90-year-old woman in the 1850 census can safely be eliminated as a biological child of that woman; the man born in 1745 could not have been buried in 1739; the person with whom I share 3150 cM of DNA is my sibling.
The challenge is to avoid making what seems like an appropriate assumption but is really based on faulty reasoning or bias. For instance, we presume that every child listed in a household in the 1860 U.S. Census is son or daughter of the two adults listed first. However, the household could include step-children, cousins, or individuals not even related to the family who were erroneously assigned the same surname.
Other inappropriate assumptions can include:
- the notion that a baby was born within a week of his baptismal date;
- a woman’s reported surname on her marriage certificate is her maiden name;
- there is only one person in any village, town, or city with the name of your ancestor;
- someone who shares 2000 cM of DNA with you must be your grandparent, aunt or uncle, niece or nephew, half sibling, or grandchild (they could be a ¾ sibling, the child of one of your parents and the sibling of the other parent).
4. All of the data from the various sources must correlate, and there can be no unresolved contradictions.
When the birth certificate says Richard was born in 1914, the 1938 newspaper article about his wedding reports Richard was 24 years old and the 1942 World War II Draft Registration card notes Richard’s date of birth occurred in 1914, we can confidently declare Richard was born in 1914.
If the wedding article declared the groom was 23 years old the contradiction could be explained by the time of year in which the wedding occurred – before or after Richard’s birthday.
But if his birth certificate reported a 1914 birth, and the newspaper article noted Richard was 32 years old, while the World War II Draft Registration listed his year of birth as 1920, we have some important contradictions. It is most likely the records are for three different men with the same name.
By collecting additional evidence, we finally learn that Griselda and John Wise did marry, and after his death Griselda married Willis Tenney. If we had collected only one of these four records we would not have had the most accurate information regarding Griselda Paul. Photos courtesy https://familysearch.org.
It’s important to remember that once we have accomplished that initial goal of building out our tree a few generations (or identifying our immigrant ancestor, or determining if we are related to that historical person) we can – and should – go back and collect other sources related to that person. This will result in uncovering a more complete story of their lives in the process.
As we can see from the four documents regarding Griselda Paul’s marriages, her story is much more than a simple list of birth, marriage, and death dates. As we identify, review, and analyze the other available sources, Griselda’s story will come alive with the facts and details we uncover.
A Fresh Set of Eyes on Your Genealogy Brick Wall
Sometimes the wrong evidence or assumptions can push us into a brick wall. A fresh set of expert eyes can help you identify the problem, and recommend the sources you need to pursue in order to compile trustworthy evidence.
If you are looking for some assistance in your genealogical research, Legacy Tree Genealogists can help. Our affordable ($100 USD) Genealogist-on-DemandTM Virtual Consultation service provides you with the opportunity for a 45 minute one-on-one discussion of your research with one of our expert genealogists. We can help guide you in evaluating evidence and determining research strategies to move forward with your research confidently.
About the Author: Kate Eckman
Legacy Tree guest blogger Kate Eakman grew up hearing Civil War stories at her father’s knee and fell in love with history and genealogy at an early age. With a master’s degree in history and over 20 years experience as a genealogist, Kate has worked her magic on hundreds of family trees and narratives.
Professional Genealogists Kate Eakman
 “Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS),” Board for Certification of Genealogists, https://bcgcertification.org/ethics-standards, accessed March 2020.
The Genealogy Gems Podcast
Lisa Louise Cooke
Highlights of this episode include:
- AncestryDNA’s new Genetic Communities: An Interview with Catherine Ball, Ancestry’s Chief Scientific Officer;
- Meet contestant Joe Greer from Relative Race, the genealogy reality show;
- The new Genealogy Gems Book Club featured title: a novel from an internationally best-selling author
- A botched reference to the 1950 census in a Stephen King novel?and 5 tips for counting down to the 1950 census release in exactly 5 years
- Naming traditions tip from a listener
- Lisa’s Google search strategies: search operators, YouTube and more
NEWS: ANCESTRYDNA GENETIC COMMUNITIES
Ancestry.com rolls out AncestryDNA Genetic Communities
FREE VIDEO: Introducing AncestryDNA Genetic Communities
Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 201 about new AncestryDNA study
NEWS: MYHERITAGE CONSISTENCY CHECKER
Access by logging in to your MyHeritage account and find this tool under the Family Tree dropdown menu:
This podcast is sponsored by:
MyHeritage.com is the place to make connections with relatives overseas, particularly with those who may still live in your ancestral homeland. Visit www.MyHeritage.com
A Similar Tool: RootsMagic Problem Search
In RootsMagic, find it under the Tools menu. Select Problem Search, then Problem List to select the different kinds of problems you can have RootsMagic identify for you and to choose what age ranges you decide are out of bounds for a new father or mother.
Thank you to our podcast sponsors:
MAILBOX: NAMING TRADITIONS
Norwegian naming traditions tip from a listener
Irish naming conventions mentioned in this Q&A with Irish expert Kate Eakman
Mexican Genealogy Guide by David A. Fryxell
2 more places to find naming traditions:
Google search: for the name of the country or ethnic group, plus naming traditions
MAILBOX: GOOGLE SEARCH OPERATOR TIP: “Oppenheim the butcher, NOT the bomb!”
FREE VIDEO TUTORIAL:
Speak Google’s Language: Google Search Operator Basics
The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, 2nd edition by Lisa Louise Cooke
MAILBOX: STEPHEN KING AND THE 1950 CENSUS
To search inside books in Amazon:
INTERVIEW: JOE GREER ON RELATIVE RACE
Meet Team Black: Joe and Madison Greer of Portland, OR
Relative Race: “What happens when genealogy meets reality TV? Using their DNA as a guide, contestants embark on the ultimate road trip across America, completing challenges and meeting unknown relatives along the way.”
Click here to watch past episodes online for free. The last two episodes of season two, 9 & 10, will air back to back respectively at 7pm MT/9pm ET and 8pm MT/10PM ET on Sunday, April 30.
Click here to learn more about the show
BONUS CONTENT FOR GENEALOGY GEMS APP USERS
Free PDF summary of 8 top genealogy TV shows from the past several years and where you can watch them online?a few of them for free, including Relative Race.
The Genealogy Gems app is FREE in Google Play and $2.99 for Windows, iPhone and iPad users.
INTERVIEW: Catherine Ball, Chief Scientific Officer, Ancestry.com
About Catherine Ball: Chief Scientific Officer at Ancestry
FREE VIDEO DEMO: Introducing AncestryDNA Genetic Communities
Study using AncestryDNA data identifies group migration patterns
Thanks to Your DNA Guide Diahan Southard for joining us to talk about this new development in genetic genealogy. Click here to learn more about Diahan’s how-to DNA video tutorials and personal consultation services for solving your family history mysteries with DNA.
GENEALOGY GEMS BOOK CLUB
New featured title: The Whole Town’s Talking by Fannie Flagg
A multi-generational novel about a Swedish immigrant and the town he builds in the American Midwest by luring other Swedish settlers and a mail-order bride. As characters die, they take up residency in the local cemetery and continue to comment on the activities and people of the town.
Also recommended by Fannie Flagg: The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion
New from past Book Club authors:
The Missing Man by Nathan Dylan Goodwin, a novella in his popular Forensic Genealogist series
Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave is now available in paperback
THE LOUISIANA PURCHASE
Lisa Louise Cooke, Host and Producer
Sunny Morton, Editor
Diahan Southard, Your DNA Guide, Content Contributor
Lacey Cooke, Service Manager
Vienna Thomas, Associate Producer
Check out this new episode!
Podcasts are hotter than ever. Folks listen while doing a wide range of activities: working, exercising, commuting, cooking or simply relaxing.
My hope is that as you listen to the free Genealogy Gems Podcast (and the ad-free Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast to which our members have exclusive access) you’ll not only listen, but put into action the ideas and strategies that you hear.
That’s why it’s so rewarding when a listener takes the time to write and let me know what they accomplished using the techniques they heard about on the show or in our videos.
Busting Genealogy Brick Walls
But can a podcast help you bust a genealogical brick wall? Well, according to listener and Genealogy Gems Premium member Natalie Zett, you bet they can! With Natalie’s permission I want to share her email with you today because I believe it will not only inspire you, but it also provides an excellent example of how to apply what you hear.
“Hi Lisa Louise and the Genealogy Gems Gang –
As a long-time listener and Premium Subscriber, I recently put everything I’ve learned from you to the test!
I’ve traced most of my direct ancestors back to the 1500s–and have a fairly complete family tree. So, I figured that there weren’t any BIG things left to discover.
Then, a few months ago, I searched my father’s surname, “Zett,” among my Ancestry.com (DNA) matches, fully expecting to see family members that I already knew. I wanted to know if they had photos or other records that I didn’t have so I could stay current.
I saw the list of usual suspects (cousins that I’d grown up with), but also saw a handful of new 4th cousin matches who had the surname Zett in their family trees. I had no idea who any of these matches were!
A closer look revealed that those matches with family trees shared a common ancestor: “Caroline Zett,” who was born “in Hungary” around 1859 and died in Syracuse, New York around 1899.
The records for Caroline were scant–besides the family tree listings, there were only a few census entries, and marriage certificates for her children. Initially I thought she married into our family, but it appeared that Zett was her birth name. “Caroline” however is not a name I would expect to see.
My Zett ancestors are Carpatho-Rusyns, an ethnic minority from the part of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire that is now Eastern Slovakia.
Our surname was “Zid” in Slovak or “Zsid” in Hungarian, but in terms of first names, there wasn’t much variation.
My direct-line female ancestors were: Maria, Anna, and Elizabeta. Within their nuclear families, names were often recycled. For example, if a girl called Maria died and another girl was born later, she might also be named Maria –this made family tree work a lot of fun! So, “Caroline” didn’t fit into that naming tradition–and, to my ears, didn’t sound Slavic.
Caroline’s husband was called John Frisco, which also didn’t sound very Slavic (the Frisco’s I knew were all Italian). Marrying outside of one’s ethnic group in the 1880s would have been unusual, so that also was a puzzle.
And Syracuse, New York was also perplexing. My grandparents on both sides immigrated from Eastern Europe to Johnstown, PA, and those who did branch out, moved westward. I knew of no one in the family who settled in New York.
Famous for a flood: “Wreck and Ruin, Johnstown, PA U.S.A.” Kilburn Brothers, Photographer (Public Domain)
What was going on here? The brick wall I was hoping to scale was turning into genealogical quicksand!”
WWLLD Leads to 4 Actionable Steps
“So, in the spirit of WWLLD (“What Would Lisa Louise Do?”), I countered that confusion with the following actions!!
1. Created a private family tree on Ancestry for Caroline (Editor’s note: an idea discussed in episode #229) and her descendants and conducted records searches, which provided clues:
Two of Caroline’s children were listed as being born in “Hungary” which is something I’ve often seen in my early research (for years, I thought I was Hungarian!)
Another child was born in Johnstown in 1888. Besides the Johnstown connection, this was significant since my great-grandparents briefly lived in Johnstown during that same time period before returning to Slovakia.
The obituary of another child mentioned that she was buried in a Greek Catholic cemetery in Syracuse. This was also significant since, at that time, Rusyns were usually members of the Byzantine (Greek Catholic) church.
2. Used triangulation to validate that all of these “Caroline” matches belonged to my paternal grandfather’s family.
3. Reached out to the DNA matches (heard from just one person who had no information about Caroline).
4. Also used Ancestry’s “Predicted relationship” tool, which showed that these matches and I shared the same gr-gr-great grandparents.
All signs pointed to Caroline being the sister of my paternal great-grandfather, Andreas. But the records for my great-grandfather’s siblings listed Maria, Anna, Anna, Anna, Anna, Elizabeta, George, and Adam. (Yes, there were four different Anna’s among those siblings!). No Caroline to be found there.
I took a closer look at those records though and found that Elizabeta was born the same year as “Caroline” (1859) and later married Joannes Fecko (which sounds somewhat like John Frisco). This is where my intuition kicked in and said I’d found them!
Still, I wanted to be sure, and consulted with a cousin who’s an expert on our Rusyn ancestors. Having traveled back and forth to our ancestral home village, Olsavica, Slovakia many times, cousin Dave has collected lots of records throughout the years. (Most of these records are unavailable online).
Dave reviewed these records against my research and found the marriage for Elizabeta and Joannes. He further found the birth records for two children who were born in Olsavica. The names and birthdates of these children exactly matched the records for the children I’d located.
He concluded that Elizabeta and Joannes immigrated to America in the late 1880s and would have been among the first immigrants from Olsavica to venture to the USA.
He further theorized that, after my great-grandparents returned to Olsavica, Elizabeta and Joannes may have decided to adapt to America ways quicker than they would have otherwise to survive, thus adopting names that (to them) sounded more American.
So, Elizabeta became Caroline and similarly, her husband, Joannes Fecko, became John Frisco! Also, since Elizabeta and Joannes were living in Johnstown during the great flood of 1889, that might have inspired them to relocate to Syracuse.
I can only say WHEW!
This is the first time I’ve run into this type of name switching in my ancestral research!
In tandem, I wonder if any living Frisco cousins grew up thinking they had Italian ancestry –and are puzzled as to why this isn’t showing up in their Ancestry DNA results!
Should I ever establish/reestablish contact with any of them, I’m sure they’ll be surprised as well!
I didn’t realize how much knowledge I’d absorbed (actively or even passively) from listening to your podcasts, watching your videos, and reading your articles. But whenever I hit a roadblock, I always had another tool I could pull out, e.g., Hit a dead-end with records? No problem, just study the DNA matches (editor’s note: as we discuss in many Premium videos and podcast episodes like Episode #197.) When that stops working, look at newspapers and Google Books! I had it covered!
(Editor’s note: Here’s a listing of all our articles on Newspaper research. Genealogy Gems Premium eLearning members can watch the full length video class Google Books: The Tool You Should Use Every Day here.)
Newspaper found! “Solomon Levi, who was arrested by Deputy United States Marshall Spaulding last week at Split Rock, was arraigned before United States Commissioner Northrup yesterday on a charge of selling liquor without a license, and was held under $500 bonds for the United States grand jury. The principal witnesses were John Frisco, a Hungarian saloon keeper, and his 13-year-old daughter, Mary, who also acted as interpreter to her father. The little girl was pretty and cute and her had own opinion about things. Frisco said that Levi, who lives in this city, had peddled whiskey and alcohol for about three years and carried it in jugs along with clothing and other things which he sold. John Scallion, a hotel keeper, said that he knew Levi as “Old Alcohol,” United States District Attorney (illegible) of Oswego appeared for the people as: S.D. Solon for the (illegible).” January 16, 1896. The Syracuse Standard.
Although I didn’t get this written until (now), rest assured that I thought of each of you at Genealogy Gems and was so grateful!
Thank you for helping me place my Great-Aunt, Elizabeta/Caroline and her descendants in their rightful place in our family tree!! It’s quite a story and I couldn’t have cracked that wall without you.
Thanks for the continual inspiration. I swear my IQ has gone up several points since I began listening to GG!
With gratitude, Natalie Zett”
Share Your Story
Reading the challenges faced and strategies used by other researchers can help to reinvigorate our own genealogical search. Thank you to Natalie for taking the time to write and for providing permission to share her story.
Have you made an exciting discovery thanks to something you heard on the Genealogy Gems Podcast? Please leave a comment below!