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The principles of genealogical proof

The principles of genealogical proof
So we’re going to look at the principles of genealogical proof right now, and try to get our heads around those. So these encompass questions about why is proof essential? And the question of should I or can I use pre-existing research? And then we’ll look at what’s called the Genealogical Proof Standard, and give an introduction to that. It’s an important standard that’s being used by genealogists around the world now. So, why is proof essential? Basically so you can be sure that you’ve found the right ancestor. It’s all too easy to find a name that matches and add that person on to your family tree.
Only to discover later that there were five people in that area with the same name and perhaps the same dates. And you’ve unfortunately chosen the wrong person, and followed the rabbit down the wrong rabbit hole. So proof and consideration of different names, and following those is really– is quite essential for your confidence levels. As well as other people being confident in your work. You don’t want your family to come back and look at your work later and go, “hmm actually they didn’t get the right person”. And so that, also, that you can come back to work with confidence, as well.
Say you take a break and come back to your work later, and are thinking, well where did I actually find that fact? What proof do I have that that person lived in that area, and had that occupation? How do I know that? So, proof is about the sources that you used, but it’s also about writing down where you found things as well. And there’s a question of– should you use pre-existing research? And I would say yes, but use it with caution. And also acknowledge that work of other people.
So, if you’ve talked to someone and found some information on your family line that someone else has come up with, make sure that you acknowledge that source in your family tree, and give that person credit for that. But, as we were saying earlier in some of these lectures, family trees that have been created by other people can have information in them that’s not correct. But also published family histories as well. Things that have been published in books, you know– articles, can be wrong. So you need to double check what other people have done, and don’t just take it– “It’s in black and white so it must be true.” Not the truth.
So some things to look for in other people’s work is– have they used primary sources? Have they told you what sources that they– have they used? And are those sources good ones, in your opinion? So those are some of the ways to consider the validity of what other people have done. So I would suggest to use them as a place that get ideas for where to go with your family research, but not as an end point in and of themselves. You must question and veri– verify research that other people have done. So the Genealogical Proof Standard, what is it?
Well, it grew out of the idea that the preponderance of evidence, or the balance of probabilities used in civil legal cases. And the American Society of Genealogists back in the 1960s published some work around this idea, and were promoting this idea of a preponderance of evidence being used to– to solve genealogical cases. And since that time period more work has been done on what a standard of proof should be. And in 2000 the American Board of Certification of Genealogists published a manual, called the “Genealogical Standards Manual”, that laid out, in great detail, a number of these standards, which has now been reworked by several other authors, and there are five main points.
But really it’s a set of logical, procedural steps that good genealogists have followed for many, many years and will continue to follow as well. But just to go through the specific points of what the standard is. There– yeah, I was saying there’s five main points, and we’ll go through each one in detail here. First one is– has the research been what’s called reasonably exhaustive? And that asks you to examine a wide range of a high quality sources in an organised way. And it gets you to look at what name variations there might be, and we know that there are many name variations, and also consider possible confusion with other matches.
This goes back to– do you have five possible matches, and making sure that you choose the highest probable one. And it’s not always possible to know 100%– sometimes you might have two strong contenders– but as long as you’ve considered the issues around those that’s a good way to going– to knowing that your research has been reasonably exhaustive. So the sources that you use for these will vary by the question that you’re trying to answer, and the place that you’re looking at.
So what I would perhaps suggest doing is making a list of the most important sources that are regularly used in your area of study– your country of interest– and just ticking them off as you use them to make sure that you haven’t forgotten something. Then also think about adding to that list and dropping it off– dropping things off as well. So, has the research been reasonably exhaustive? Secondly, have you– have you looked at the information? Have you analysed and correlated the information that you found? And that means have you interpreted what the documents are telling you, correctly? Have you found someone in a census household, and perhaps not found them at the census household and assumed that they’ve died?
But because the census only is showing who actually slept somewhere on a particular night doesn’t mean that they’ve died at all. So think about what the document’s truly telling you, and get the most out of them. Do the documents mean what you think they mean? And does– perhaps more importantly, does the information agree with other things that you know about the person? If you found a birth document that has a wildly incorrect date from what you know about the person but everything else is correct, maybe that document’s not about your person. Or maybe the other information is wrong. So that’s a case where you need to go off and find more– more documentation.
So thirdly, has conflicting evidence been resolved? This really follows on from that second point. If you have more than one possible birth date or birth place. Say you’ve got varying information from census records and marriage records. How can you resolve that and find what you think is the true place? Which is more likely to be correct? And that may come down to the quality of the source. But you may have to resign yourself to a probable piece of information– a birth date for example, or place– until you find further information. Until, perhaps, you actually can get the birth certificate, that kind of thing. So here’s an example of a document.
If you were just to take this single document as proof of a birth date, you would go– you would have totally the wrong information in your family tree. So this gentleman, who happens to be my grandfather, filled in his World War I draft registration form, and he gave his year of birth– sorry, his date of birth as June 13, 1887. And that gave them an age of 30 in 1917 when this was taken. Which– that birth year doesn’t agree with any other source that I have for him. His death certificate tells me that the June 13 is correct, but his date– sorry, his year of birth is 1893.
Which– and that 1893 year matches up with the other ages on the census records, and a variety of other sources. So it’s far more likely to be 1893 instead of 1887. So my question is, why did he give the wrong year of birth on the World War I draft registration form, and thus make himself older? Was it to make himself less likely to have– to be called up? So I don’t have the answers to these questions, but it’s certainly something that makes me think. But, as I say, if I was just to take that bit of information alone for his birth information, I would be off on the wrong track. So find other things to correlate.
OK, have your sources been cited or referenced? Have you written down– have you noted down what source you’ve used to create your family tree? So every statement of fact that you make has to be referenced, i.e. you have to note down where you got the information from. And there’s a variety of different ways to reference– to create references. We’ll talk about that elsewhere in the course. But this really shows the sources that you’ve used, and it allows other researchers to check your work. But also, if you come back to the work that you’ve done in six months time, in a couple of years time, you’ll know where you found that information.
And you won’t be going, “How on Earth did I know that he was born in Illinois?” You’ll know because you’ll have written that down. So, very important. Everything has to be cited or referenced, however you want to call that. And finally, have you created a reasoned conclusion? Have you stated your case for the information, and the family line or the answer to the questions that you wanted to set out to answer? So, you need to explain how the evidence that you found leads to your conclusions. If you have five possible people, and you’ve chosen one of them, tell us why you’ve discounted those other people and why you think this one person is the right person.
It really helps if you set out your arguments in a logical fashion. In doing this, when you have questions of proof, of say those five potential people may create new avenues of research for you to go down and try. And a reasoned conclusion can be created through notes that you take in, say, a family tree software programme. It doesn’t have to be you sitting down with a piece of paper or typing things into a Word document– word processing document. It can be done through notes that you’ve used in software. But it is often very nice to create a written explanation of the conclusions that you’ve come to, because that’s often easier for people to read and follow.
So that’s the final wrap up for the Genealogical Proof Standards. So, all things coming together, it allows people to have confidence in your work. That you’ve come up with the right conclusion, and– or the probably right conclusion. Because as we’ve been talking about there’s never perhaps 100% in anything. There’s always a slight area of inconclusion. But it really helps set your case out, and make people confident that you’ve found the right person.

This video introduces the various elements of the Genealogical Proof Standard and considers why basing your research in proof is essential.

We’ll also consider whether you can safely use pre-existing research.

The document that features in this video is available in the ‘Downloads’ section below

This article is from the free online

Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree

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