Genealogical Evidence and Proof: How to know if you’ve compiled enough evidence

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.  

genealogical evidence and proof

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.[1] 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.

marriage license genealogy

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.

newspaper obituary

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.

genealogy record Tenney

 

additional genealogical evidence

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.

Kate Eakman Legacy Tree Genealogists

Professional Genealogists Kate Eakman

 

[1] “Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS),” Board for Certification of Genealogists, https://bcgcertification.org/ethics-standards, accessed March 2020.

Family History Episode 30 – Immigration and Naturalization Records for Family History, Part 2

Family History: Genealogy Made Easy Podcast
with Lisa Louise Cooke
Republished May 6, 2014

Listen to the Family History: Genealogy Made Easy podcast by Lisa Louise Cooke. It’s a great series for learning the research ropes and well as refreshing your skills.

https://lisalouisecooke.com/familyhistorypodcast/audio/fh30.mp3

Download the Show Notes for this Episode

Welcome to this step-by-step series for beginning genealogists—and more experienced ones who want to brush up or learn something new. I first ran this series in 2008-09. So many people have asked about it, I’m bringing it back in weekly segments.

Episode 30: Immigration and Naturalization Records for Family History, Part 2

This episode continues last episode’s conversation about immigration and naturalization records. With me again is Stephen Danko, PhD,  a genealogy lecturer and a very popular blogger.  In today’s show Steve and I talk more about passenger lists, and some of the ramifications of an immigrant being detained or deported. We cover the multi-step naturalization process and you’ll hear about a fantastic find in naturalization papers–so fantastic that other researchers at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City wanted a copy!

Here are my favorite take-away points from this episode:

There were no requirements to keep passenger lists in the U.S. before 1820, or in Canada before 1867. (Many people originally arrived in one or the other of these countries, then migrated across the border, which was essentially unregulated before the 1890s.) There may have been records kept, but you’re not going to find them easily.

The passenger lists we’re most familiar with were filled out in the port of departure, then surrendered to U.S. government officials upon arrival. But other records were maintained at the port of departure. Departure information from European ports is often available on microfilm at the Family History Library, on Ancestry.com or other websites. Some of the passenger steamship lines themselves kept departure lists, like the White Star Line or the Red Star Line, and these are on microfilm. Here’s an excellent article on Passenger Departure Lists of German Emigrants, 1709-1914. Look for resources specific to other countries in genealogical guides under the headings “emigration” or “departure lists.”

Immigrants who were deported or even detained for further investigation, the steamship line had to pay the bill. If they were detained or they went back, the date and ship of deportation may be indicated on the passenger manifests.

Naturalization was a multistep process. The “first paper” is the declaration of intent. After a certain period of time, they applied for their petition for naturalization (“second papers”). Eventually they received their certificate of naturalization. After 1926, there may also be a certificate of arrival. (See Episode 29.)

Naturalization records may be at the county level or may be in federal court. Increasingly these are coming online. Meanwhile, some are easier to track down than others. Most Massachusetts naturalizations are available on microfilm and at the Massachusetts State Library. Some books

Many 20th-century naturalizations are packed with family information. Steve shared an example for one of his relatives. Her naturalization had her name, birthdate and birthplace, name of her husband and date of her marriage, her husband’s birthplace and date, the names of all her children, her date of arrival and the ship she came on! Some later naturalizations also have photographs. Microfilmed files may also have the certificate of arrival.

Updates and Links

About 70 million immigration and naturalization records have been indexed in recent years through an enormous community indexing project led by FamilySearch. Check out their site (below) to see what records are searchable now.

Ancestry.com

Ellis Island.org

FamilySearch.org Immigration and Naturalization Online Resources

One-Step Webpages by Stephen P. Morse (Ellis Island Search Tool)

Timeline of U.S. Immigration Laws

Family History Episode 38 – How to Start a Genealogy Blog, Part 1

Family History: Genealogy Made Easy
with Lisa Louise Cooke
Republished July 1, 2014

family history genealogy made easy podcast

with Lisa Louise Cooke

https://lisalouisecooke.com/familyhistorypodcast/audio/fh38.mp3

Download the Show Notes for this Episode Welcome to this step-by-step series for beginning genealogists—and more experienced ones who want to brush up or learn something new. I first ran this series in 2008-09. So many people have asked about it, I’m bringing it back in weekly segments.

Episode 38: How to Start a Genealogy Blog, Part 1

Have you ever thought about starting your own genealogy blog? Or, if you have, have you wished you could get some expert tips on making it better? In these next few episodes, we’re going to talk about sharing your research and/or your thoughts on the research process by blogging. But even if you don’t plan on starting a blog anytime soon, I know you will enjoy the seasoned genealogy blogger I’ve invited to start us off. The Footnote Maven’s passion for genealogy is contagious, and you’ll enjoy her sense of humor, and words of wisdom.

I caught up with the Footnote Maven at the Southern California Genealogy Jamboree. She has been blogging for quite some time now and has much to share on the subject. Her two very popular blogs, FootnoteMaven and Shades of the Departed, are widely read by genealogists everywhere.

In this episode, she shares:

  1. specific tips for getting started, how she prepares her blog posts
  2. what she would have done differently if she could start all over again
  3. 9 tips for getting readers to leave comments.

But first, a Mailbox Moment:

A reader writes in to comment on Episode #36 and questions regarding Family Tree Maker and Ancestry.com. He sends this link, which shows how to use both websites to search for a female who has married. As you suggested, entering the Birth Name in the database, but how to locate that person using Family Tree Maker’s Web Search feature at Ancestry.com. This specific example is for a census record, but other records can also be found using this same technique.

Family History Blogging with the Footnote Maven

According to her website, a “footnote maven” is someone who is dazzlingly skilled at inserting a citation denoting a source, a note of reference, or a comment at the foot of a scholarly writing.

Footnote Maven’s thoughts on getting started with your own genealogy blog: Go look at several genealogy blogs. What do you like? What do not like? Design wise and content wise. Ask yourself what kind of blog you want to write. Who is your audience? What will you offer them?

Biggest piece of advice: You don’t want to be someone else – be yourself!  Everybody else is already taken! “There is something wonderful in all of us – we just have to determine what that is and showcase it.” Pick your niche and stay there. And love doing it, because you’ll never get rich at it! She says, “It is the breath I take…It’s the reason I get up in the morning.”

What She Would Do Differently If She Could Have:

  • 25 posts in draft ready to go allowing more editing time
  • I would tinker more with the look of my blog until it was the way I wanted
  • Invite a few friends to test drive it

And she’ll tell you what was even harder for her than starting her first blog!

Now that the genealogy blogging community is established, people don’t comment as frequently. Footnote Maven shares these for getting comments on your blog:

  1. Thank people for the comments they leave on your blog
  2. Go to their blog and read it
  3. Tell the blogger the positive points in what they are doing
  4. Host a “Carnival” on your blog
  5. Post “off the wall” stuff once in a while
  6. Have good, creative titles for your posts – something that’s going to spark the interest
  7. Use a word in your title that folks haven’t heard before to catch attention
  8. Tag your posts and images
  9. Include “keywords” such as “genealogy.”

“Who Else Has Viewed This Record?” Find Living Relatives!

There are lots of ways to find historical records about your ancestors online. Did you know there are also ways to learn who else has added that record to their trees–or who else is researching the same people you are? Here are two ways:

1. On Ancestry.com, when you are looking at an image of a record, there’s a sidebar to your right called “Related Content.” Click on it. Below other suggested records you will see a list showing anyone who has saved this record to their trees. You’ll see a link to that username and you can contact them. This is what it looks like:   Ancestry screen shot who else saved this record 2. On LostCousins.com, you can enter the names of relatives whose names appear on specific censuses. Their database will search for others who are looking for the same people. This is a great resource for people with British Isles roots, as the site originates from there. Here are the censuses they support:

  • England and Wales, 1841, 1881, 1911
  • Scotland, 1881
  • United States, 1880, 1940
  • Canada, 1881
  • Ireland, 1991.

Basic membership at LostCousins.com is free, but has limited functionality. You can only contact new people during certain windows of time during the year. With a £10 annual subscription, you can make new contacts anytime. Genealogy Gems Premium Membership and Podcast Looking for more ways to find living relatives? Genealogy Gems Premium members can click here to access my full-length video class, Unleash Your Inner Private Eye to Find Living Relatives. Not a member? Click here to join.

New Archival Collections: How to Know What’s New at Your Favorite Repository

New archival collections at your favorite repository may be the long-awaited key to solving your family history mysteries! But how can you keep up with what’s new at archives and libraries? Professional archivist Melissa Barker shares her favorite tips.

new archival collections

 

Not long ago, Lisa Louise Cooke read my article on what’s new at the Utah State Archives. She asked me how I keep up with new archival collections at my favorite repositories.

New Archival Collections May Be Just What We Need

Many of us can say that our ancestors were living in a certain area and their records should be located at certain local archives, libraries, or genealogical or historical societies. Maybe we have even done research there in the past, either by visiting the facility, contacting them by phone or email, or using their records online. Records, photographs, ephemera, and artifacts are constantly being discovered and made available in all of our wonderful archives. Many of these records may not make it to microfilm or online, but they are so rich with family information. (Don’t know where to look? Click here to learn how to find archives and libraries near your ancestor’s locale.)

But trying to keep up with all the new records that are being processed in archives, libraries, and genealogical societies can make your head spin! So how are genealogists supposed to stay current?

3 Ways to Keep Up with New Archival Collections

new archival collections uniforms1. Check the archives website. See if they have announced new records collections that are available for research (many archives do). The archives may even have a blog or newsletter that you can subscribe to, which will give you the latest news right at your fingertips. Not only will the archives announce new records that are available but they will even let their patrons know what has been recently donated to the archives and which records are currently being processed.

2. See if the archive has a social media presence. Archives like to post photos of new discoveries and records collections that are ready for the researcher. I know at the Houston County, TN. Archives I like to scan and post images of great documents or artifacts to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. (Like the post pictured here that I shared recently.)

LISA’S TIP: Remember to use Google search terms to find your favorite archive’s website and social media homes! A quick search such as National Archives Pinterest might be faster than trying to find it on the actual social media site. That search brings up tempting boards for National Archives in both the US and the UK:

3. When visiting an archive, ask: “What’s new?” Talk to archivists about records collections that have recently been processed and made available for research. This is a great way to find more information and records about your ancestors. As an archivist who processes records on a daily basis that are not online or even microfilmed, I get excited about sharing what I find with the genealogy community.

Until next time, this is The Archive Lady, remember it’s not all online, so contact or visit an archive today!

Learn More about Using Archival Collections

Listen to me on the free Genealogy Gems Podcast! This year the podcast is celebrating its 10th-year anniversary. Tune in to hear more inspiring stories and tips to help your family history research. Listen on your computer or on your mobile device through the Genealogy Gems app. Click here to learn more.

 

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