Horses Not Zebras: 5 Tips for Evaluating Conflicting Evidence
“How do I evaluate conflicting evidence in my family history?” Read on to discover tips from professional genealogists.
A common medical aphorism states, “When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras.” Essentially, this means that when making a diagnosis, doctors should avoid jumping to an exotic conclusion when there is a more commonplace explanation. The same principle applies when evaluating genealogical evidence.
One of the most common mistakes a novice researcher can make is coming up with a wild or convoluted theory when encountering something in a record that doesn’t make sense. However, the reality is, most of the time, the simplest answer is the correct one, and while unusual circumstances did happen, they are just that, unusual.
Although any small detail can feel extraordinary when learning about your ancestors, the explanation for contradictory evidence is usually simple, but may require thinking outside the box. Here are some tips to follow when evaluating records that don’t seem to fit:
- Where did your known information come from? Are there original sources to back it up?
When verifying family information, go as far down the tree as needed to find information that you can confirm. Then work your way back up, proving the links generation by generation with sources to make sure you are following the right line.
- Do the geography and timeline make sense?
This is a common mistake, especially when researching in a foreign country. Just because both places are in Germany, or England, doesn’t mean that they are near each other. Pull out a map and see if you can locate the different towns. Is it feasible that one child was born hundreds of miles away from the others when the younger children were back in the original place? Probably not.
- Could they be two different people with the same name? Evaluate differences carefully—if things aren’t lining up, consider the possibility that the records could be for two different people who were the same age or living in the same place.
For example, it is much more likely that there were two people with the same name who married different people, than a case of bigamy (plus there are usually other records that would indicate that). It helps to map out a timeline and examine details such as addresses to separate them out. If they are not the same person, a piece of evidence will eventually provide you with the necessary genealogical proof to substantiate this.
- Were there circumstances surrounding the creation of the record that could lead to mistakes or misinformation?
For example, an informant on a death record reporting the deceased’s parents or birth likely received the information secondhand from someone else, or they could misremember details due to grief.
Other circumstances could include changing one’s age to enlist early in the army or to appear younger, details getting lost in translation, coming from a culture where exact age was not important, changing a name to fit into a new country, etc.
- Could it be a clerical error? Keep in mind that records (and people!) are not infallible. Many records, including censuses, were copied down by a clerk or someone who did not know the family in question, and they could have made a mistake in spelling, understanding the information and/or a copying error.
If a reported relationship isn’t making sense with the details confirmed by other records, consider the possibility that the clerk heard it wrong, wrote it on the wrong line, or misunderstood. For example, I’ve seen a passenger list where the clerk inverted a brother and a brother-in-law. Instead of jumping to a convoluted conclusion to explain the different surnames, the simplest explanation was that the clerk just mixed them up, which fit with all of the other evidence.
So, next time you encounter evidence that doesn’t seem to make sense, check to see if your theory involves an unusual circumstance. If it does, reevaluate all of the evidence and see if there could be a simpler explanation. When you have found the right theory, the evidence should build on itself, and new evidence will only strengthen it. If it really is an unusual circumstance, then you will likely find other records that support that, and if it’s not, you will have resolved the conflict.
If you need help evaluating conflicting evidence in your family history research, the team at Legacy Tree Genealogists is here to help! We’re experts at scouring every possible record source for clues to ensure our client’s genealogy is accurate and verifiable. Get started today by requesting your free quote.