Return to: Original Format | Index of GuidesRootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees
Guide No. 12:
Creating Worthwhile Genealogies for Our Families and Descendants
Nature of Evidence:
- Direct speaks directly to the point in question (e.g., a birth certificate is direct evidence of the date and place of birth of the person for whom it was issued).
- Indirect or Circumstantial provides facts from which a conclusion can be inferred (e.g., approximate year of birth can be inferred from the date of an infant's baptism).
Type of Evidence
- Primary personal testimony of an eyewitness or a record created shortly after the event by a person with personal knowledge of the facts
- Where and when was the record made?
- Who made it?
- For what purpose was it made?
- Did the information come from someone with personal knowledge of the facts?
- Was there any reason for the informant to provide inaccurate information, either intentionally or unintentionally?
Applying the answers to those questions:
An official birth certificate is better evidence of a date of birth than a diary entry made by an individual not present at the birth. (However, even an official birth record might not provide good evidence of the child's parentage in the case of an adoption because in some places concealment of the identities of the birth parents of an adopted child is officially sanctioned and substitute certificates falsely showing adoptive parents as birth parents are put on record.) Moreover, even official records can and do contain errors.
Death information provided by the attending physician is primary evidence of the date and place of death, but birth information on the same certificate (provided by someone with no personal knowledge of the date and place of birth of the decedent) is secondary evidence.
- Secondary Evidence that is copied or compiled from other sources or that is written from memory long after an event occurred.
A genealogist should not rely solely on secondary sources but should locate and examine the primary sources upon which a compiled account was based, if extant, of course.
In weighing genealogical evidence, remember that two pieces of evidence from the same source are not really two pieces of evidence. For example, a newspaper obituary might give information which later is used in a compiled county history.
- Family Records: Family Bibles, vital records, correspondence (letters), memoirs, journals, diaries, unrecorded deeds and wills, diplomas, certificates, and testimonials.
- Public Records: Censuses, government records, military, pensions, land bounty records, passport applications, passenger lists, original grants, naturalization or immigration records, records of entry, state, province and local records.
- Institutional Records: Church records, cemetery records and inscriptions, educational institutions, societies and fraternal organizations.
- Printed Materials: Family histories, collected genealogies, source materials [abstracts and transcriptions of records], local histories, other printed materials such as newspapers, reference works and directories (city, telephone, trade and professional), websites, Mailing Lists, Message (Bulletin) Boards, and e-mailmessages.
- Manuscripts: Commonly refers to handwritten or typed, not professionally printed, works.
Forms of Evidence
The best form of evidence is the original document or record.
When an original document is not available, a legible scanned copy, photocopy, or microform (film or fiche) copy of the original document should be obtained.
If an original document is not extant, one must rely on the official transcript of a document (such as a deed or will) entered in a record book by the clerk.
One should not rely on an unofficial transcript of, extract from, or abstract of an original document if the document itself or a copy of it is available.
Family historians must learn to weigh and evaluate evidence similar to the way juries do. There are differences, however.
In a court of law there are two major categories of evidence:
- Admissible; meaning it is worth considering, but still varies in degrees of reliability.
- Inadmissible; meaning it is not allowed to be heard because it is not reliable enough.
But we genealogists do not have judges to tell us what can or cannot be heard. We "hear" it all. We look at every shred of information we find and sometimes draw incorrect conclusions because we do not know how to weigh it or how to resolve the frequent occurrence of conflicting evidence.
Researchers often assume that if several pieces of information agree, the data must be correct. Such assumptions often lead to erroneous pedigrees and frequently create genealogical dead-ends. There is a great deal of confusion surrounding the terms "evidence," "proof," and "sources." Donn Devine, a certified genealogist and practicing attorney, in an excellent article on "Evidence and Sources" in Ancestry magazine, provides this guidance:
- Source is the means by which information comes to a researcher.
- Evidence is the physical form in which information is presented to the senses.
- Proof is a name for a process that takes place in the mind, not for the evidence on which it is based. However, the term is also used to refer to the documents utilized as evidence for many lineage-society applications.
5. Virgil Walter 3 Earp 14 (Nicholas Porter2, Walter1) He married (1) Magdelana C. "Ellen" Rysdam15 September 21, 1861 in Knoxville, Marion County, Iowa.16 He married (2) Rosella Dragoo16 1870 in Lamar, Barton County, Missouri.17 He married (3) Alvira Packingham Sullivan about 1874, daughter of John B. Sullivan and Mary Norman.18
14. Jean Whitten Edwards, Earp Family Genealogy, (Breckenridge, Texas: Breck Printing, 1991), 150-151. 15. Myra Vanderpool Gormley, American Genealogy Magazine, Vol. 9, No. 4, July-August 1994; published by Datatrace Systems, P.O. Box 1587, Stephenville, TX 76401; James Pylant, editor, pages 23-24, [Ellen's maiden name is given as Sysdam and Rysdam. In I Married Wyatt Earp, (Note 5, Chapter 3) it says Virgil Earp married Ellen Rysdam in Marion County, Iowa using his middle name, Walter, and listing her as Ellen Donahoo; however, that marriage record is that of Walter McKendree Earp (1836-1935), the son of Peter Asbury Earp, according to Earp Family Genealogy, 148. 16. Jean Whitten Edwards, Earp Family Genealogy, (Breckenridge, Texas: Breck Printing, 1991), 151. 17. U.S. Census, 1870 Barton County, Missouri, Population Schedule. (NARS M593, Roll 757, p. 830B). Lamar township, Barton post office, page 830B, family numbers 212, 213 and 214. 18. Glenn G. Boyer, Wyatt Earp: Facts (Volume Three), (Rodeo, New Mexico: Historical Research Associates, 1997), 26.
Family historians should be cognizant that most genealogy software programs use predetermined terms in their report format, such as "married" that may or may not be 100 percent accurate. The compiler may or may not have overridden default options or included footnotes to indicate variants. In this instance (above) the term "married" is used (FN16) and that is how the relationship was referred to in the sources so cited. Nevertheless, research in primary sources has not turned up a marriage license or record to either the first or third "wife" assigned to Virgil Earp.
Remember to cite the specific sources you actually used in compiling your family history.
"Source notes have two purposes: to record the specific location of each piece of data and to record details that affect the use or evaluation of that data." (Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian).
After collecting information, take a careful look at what you have and sort it into two groups:
- Primary evidence or sources. These usually are written records; the first or earliest documents in which a particular piece of information was recorded, and created at or near to the time of the event.
- Secondary evidence or source. Think of this as second-hand information that has come from some other person or record.
Get as close to the primary records and original documents as you can. However, keep in mind that even they may contain errors. Just because it is a primary source does not guarantee the information is 100 percent correct, but it is more likely to be. Additionally, make the effort to trace your secondary evidence back to primary sources. Don't blindly accept information you find in a book, CD, or on the Internet or from your relatives' memories.
How do you resolve conflicting evidence?
Follow the advice of Thomas W. Jones, Ph.D., CG, given in a National Genealogical Society Conference lecture: Judge Each Item of Evidence with the test of the four "Cs":
- Closeness (in place and time).
- Credibility (of person who made the record).
- Causality (why the record was made).
- Corroboration (with other evidence).
Of course, if you do not know where the information came from, how can you evaluate it? That is why you should carefully record and cite your sources. To create worthwhile genealogies for our families we need to use the best records and sources available, do the best work we can so our family histories may be continued by our descendants, and so they will not have to duplicate all of our work because they do not what sources we used to reach our conclusions.
Ancestry.com offers numerous free professional charts and forms that you can download.
Suggested Reading & References
- Black, Henry Campbell. Black's Law Dictionary: Definitions of Terms and Phrases of American and English Jurisprudence, Ancient and Modern, Centennial Edition (1891-1991), Sixth Edition. St. Paul, Minnesota: West Publishing Co., 1990.
- Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy (3rd edition). Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 2000.
- Jacobus, Donald Lines. Genealogy as Pastime and Profession, Second Edition [Revised]. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1978.
- Lackey, Richard S. Cite Your Sources: A Manual for Documenting Family Histories and Genealogical Records. Jackson, Mississippi, University Press of Mississippi, 1980.
- Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1997.
- National Archives and Records Administration. Citing Records in the National Archives of the United States (General Information Leaflet 17 [Revised]). Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1993.
- Rubincam, Milton (editor). Genealogical Research: Methods and Sources [Revised Edition]. Vol. I. Washington, D.C.: The American Society of Genealogists, 1980, especially Part 1, Chapter I. "Interpreting Genealogical Records," by Walter Lee Sheppard, Jr., Chapter V. "The Rules of Evidence: A Standard for Proving Pedigrees," by Noel C. Stevenson, and Part 2, Materials for Research (all).
- Stevenson, Noel C. Genealogical Evidence: A Guide to the Standard of Proof Relating to Pedigrees, Ancestry, Heirship and Family History. [Revised Edition]. Laguna Hills, California: Aegean Park Press, 1989.
- Computerized Trolling by Richard A. Pence
- Fraudulent Lineages
- Citing Your Sources Skillbuilding by Board for Certification of Genealogists
- Understanding Sources, Citations, Documentation and Evaluating Evidence in Genealogy by Richard A. Pence
- Why Bother? The Value of Documentation in Family History Research by Kory Meyerink,MLS,AG
- A Cite for Sore Eyes Quality Citations for Electronic Genealogy Sources by Mark Howells
- How to Cite Sources by John Wylie
Links in this Guide (in order they appeared)
- Ancestry Article on "Evidence and Sources"
- Free Professional Charts
- Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc.
- Computerized Trolling
- Fraudulent Lineages
- Citing Your Sources
- Understanding Sources, Citations, Documentation and Evaluating Evidence in Genealogy
- Why Bother? The Value of Documentation in Family History Research
- A Cite for Sore Eyes Quality Citations for Electronic Genealogy Sources
- How to Cite Sources
- Citing Sources