Evidence Analysis Explained Part III: Evaluating Genealogical Evidence
This third and final installment in the evidence analysis series considers the concept of genealogical “Evidence” and then overviews the Genealogical Proof Standard which allows for defensible conclusions in genealogy.
The purpose of genealogy is to reach defensible conclusions about our ancestors. This is done through proper analysis of the evidence. When we consider the sources, the information, and the evidence we can reach conclusions which are reliable.
Evidence Analysis in Genealogy
When the sources have been gathered and the information examined, it must be determined what type of evidence has been accumulated pertaining to the research problem. Evidence is the researcher’s interpretation of pertinent information and sources. This evaluation of the information as a whole in relation to the research problem is how conclusions are formed and advances made in family history. There are three types of evidence: 1) Direct, 2) Indirect, and 3) Negative. The categories of evidence are defined as follows:
Questions for Evaluating Evidence in Genealogy
As you research, use these questions to help evaluate the evidence you collect:
Does a single piece of information answer my research question?
If a piece of information provides the answer to a research question then “direct” evidence has been uncovered; however, that does not mean that your research is complete. The newly acquired information could be incorrect and it must be verified that the information pertains to the subject of the research. The veracity of a piece of information should be corroborated by context and additional records. Hence, the standard of “reasonably exhaustive research.”
Do multiple pieces of information work together to answer my research question?
If none of the data gathered independently answers the research question, then the answer may be found through linking information uncovered in multiple sources; thus, the answer to the question was arrived at indirectly. Note that indirect evidence is different than obtaining several pieces of direct evidence to corroborate each other.
Are there discrepancies in the information?
As the information and sources are examined, it is possible (if not probable) that discrepancies will be discovered. It is important to resolve discrepancies because family history is concerned with obtaining accurate information. Discrepancies can be resolved through an evaluation of the credibility of the sources and information, sound reasoning, and perhaps the accumulation of additional sources.
What situation should have existed if the proposed scenario was accurate?
This question gets to the heart of negative evidence (which is different than a negative search). Negative evidence occurs when a situation fails to exist when it should. An example best illustrates this concept.
A woman named Jane Doe married John Smith in Geauga County, Ohio, in 1832. It is believed that Jane was either the ancestor who was fifteen at the time of marriage or another woman also named Jane Doe who was eighteen. Upon further examination of the marriage register it is noticed that the clerk included notations if the bride or groom had received a parent’s consent to marry which would have been necessary for legal minors. Because the marriage record for Jane Doe and John Smith did not include a notation of parental consent, it can be reasonably presumed that the Jane Doe who married in 1832 was the older of the two women.
This can be described as negative evidence that the woman who married in 1832 was not the ancestral Jane Doe because a situation (a notation of parental consent) failed to exist when it should have if the fifteen-year-old Jane was the one who married that year. Please note that the obtaining of one marriage record does not represent “reasonably exhaustive research” as the Genealogical Proof Standard requires, but additional information will be required before the hypothesis about which Jane Doe married John Smith is corroborated.
Examples of Types of Genealogical Evidence
This entry from a marriage register provides direct evidence that James Johnson Jr. and Mary P. Crawford were married. It does not, however, prove that this marriage was for the ancestral couple.
These two baptisms, taken from the same collection of church registers, at first glance appear to indicate that Arnold Harrison had two daughters named Bennett. However, it was unlikely for two children in the same family to have the same first given name; therefore, these two documents present indirect evidence that the first child died before the baptism of the second.
This excerpt from a marriage register demonstrated that the clerk made notation when a guardian provided consent for a marriage. Since the second marriage displayed above does not have a notation, there is negative evidence that the both John and Eveline were of legal age.
Defensible Conclusions and the Genealogical Proof Standard
The final step in our research is measuring our work against the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) as defined by the Board for Certification of Genealogists. The five elements of the GPS are:
- Reasonably exhaustive research.
- Complete and accurate source citations.
- Thorough analysis and correlation.
- Resolution of conflicting evidence.
- Soundly written conclusion based on the strongest evidence.
These five standards ensure that our research investigates all relevant avenues, is documented properly to facilitate an evaluation of our research methods, that critical thinking was applied to the sources and information uncovered during our research, and that our conclusions are logical and clearly explained in written format.
By following the principles outlined in our three-part evidence analysis series, you will ensure your research efforts are accurate, and the conclusions are defensible–key attributes of researching like a professional genealogist.
We have carefully selected the members of our team at Legacy Tree Genealogists to make sure they are experts at analyzing evidence to draw accurate research conclusions. We’d love to help you with your family history, whether we’re breaking down brick wall mysteries, finding your biological parents, or just starting from scratch finding the stories about your ancestors. Contact us today for a free quote.
 Ohio, County Marriages, 1789-2013 (image and transcription), marriage register entry for James Johnson Jr and Mary P. Crawford, 10 October 1855, p. 232, Butler County, Ohio, http;//www.familysearch.org, subscription database, accessed June 2019.
 England, Kent, Church of England, Parish Church of Preston-next-Faversham, “Archdeacon’s Transcripts, 1563-1912,” baptism of Bennett Harrison, 21 May 1598, and baptism of Bennet Harryson, 3 June 1599, Family History Library microfilm 1752061.
 Ohio, County Marriages, 1789-2013 (image and transcription), marriage register entry for John L. Stevens and Eveline Barrett, 17 May 1832, p. 100, Chamaign County, Ohio, http://www.familysearch.org, subscription database, accessed June 2019.
 Genealogical Proof Standard, Board for Certification of Genealogists, https://bcgcertification.org/ethics-standards, accessed July 2019.
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