Where Is the Proof Hanging in Your Tree?
by Jeannette Piecznski


Genealogy research needs to be accurate. Complications arise when research conclusions are faulty. Many of us have received information that was assumed correct, yet was not. As well, many of us have spent many hours and spent much money researching an individual only to discover that we were on the wrong track. How are we to know what is correct? Unfortunately, the correct answers are not in the back of the book; therefore, we must rely on proof.

The proof we must rely on comes from one of two sources: primary or secondary. Primary sources are the statements of eyewitnesses to events. These statements are generally given relatively close to the time of such events or shortly after by persons with personal knowledge of the facts. A death certificate would be a primary source for a person's date of death. Conversely, it would be a secondary source for a person's date of birth as it is unknown if the informant attended the deceased's birth. A secondary source may provide you with the information sought, but should require further proof if available. An example of a secondary source would be a tombstone. Although it is likely that the tombstone was placed shortly after the death of an individual, it is also quite possible that the individual never had one until a family member purchased one years later. Use the date of death on the tombstone as a time frame to search for direct proof, such as the death certificate.

When researching your sources you will obtain two types of evidence: direct and indirect. Direct evidence furnishes the information needed to solve a specific problem. The evidence may come from either a primary or secondary source. In either instance, it pertains directly to the genealogical problem. Indirect evidence does not provide you with the absolute proof needed to solve your problem, but provides you with information on which a conclusion may be theorized. An example of this would be discovering where a person's will was probated to deduce where he or she had died. Another example would be a will listing a daughter of a different surname. One may surmise that she married a man with that surname through this indirect evidence.

As genealogists, many times we must often rely on family histories, newspapers, manuscript collections, and numerous other secondary sources. When research is based on secondary sources, you must always ask yourself, "Is it logical and within normal expectations?" Yet, being outside normal expectations does not confirm wrong information. You will just need additional proof of such instances. There are always exceptions, but fifteen year old boys do not generally get married and people do not live to be 120.

In acquiring proof, there are other questions you must consider as well. Do you have evidence to interpret and evaluate it? Do the events of this individuals life fall within normal expectations during that time period? Do the events correspond with others at the correct time? Are there any documents not located? Let's look further into these questions.

Is it logical and within normal expectations? What is normal? Normal expectations are the assumptions that events based on trends of such events during the time being researched. It is uncommon to find a fifty year old person giving birth. It is uncommon to locate a forty year old person marrying for the first time. It is uncommon to discover males under twenty-one years old as executors of estates. It is uncommon to find a female under sixteen getting married.

Do you have enough evidence to interpret and evaluate it properly? Do you have a census record for each decennial during their lives? Have you checked marriage records? Have you checked land records, most importantly the first and last in a given area? Have you followed the widow or widower? Have you checked probate, civil and the other numerous court records? What do you know about the children?

Do the events correspond to other events at the correct time? This question is closely related to the question regarding the normal expectations. Does this person show a birth in the family five years before a marriage record? Are there historical events that would indicate migration patterns?

Are there any undiscovered documents available? Has the individual vanished for a period of time? Is there another individual residing in their household that was not expected? Do they have an unexplained increase in wealth? These questions could lead to a number of available documents.

Now that you have accumulated your records and are going to evaluate them to reach your hypothesis. You may notice that many of the records and stories conflict. This could even occur between census records. How do you know which is right? This demands that you evaluate your evidence correctly. Names tend to cause a great number of problems to the beginning genealogist. Many times the names may vary greatly on each record. The beginning genealogist must realize that in a country founded on immigration, the same phonetic pronunciation will be recorded a variety of ways by the record takers. Additionally, in transcribed documents, the handwriting of the record taker may be quite difficult to read and lead to additional misspellings by the transcriber. The experienced genealogist anticipates a variety of spellings and searches records under all possible variations. As well, the experienced genealogists knows that at times the person may be going by a nickname or middle name. Many times an orphan may use his adopted father's surname. Conversely, a son may use his mother's maiden name. This is generally more common when he is inheriting property from her. It is not uncommon to find a family that has named two children the same name. This is especially common when the first child dies in infancy.

Relationships can also present problems on early records as the meanings of those relationships has changed over time. For example, a father/mother-in-law could also be a stepparent and a son/daughter-in-law could be a stepchild. In very early America, a cousin was a niece or nephew. Located a Junior and Senior in the same area does not provide proof of a blood relation. There are many others, so you must look further to decide the correct meanings.

Genealogists once relied on the term a "preponderance of the evidence." As stated by Helen F. M. Leary, "genealogy requires a level of proof for preponderance of the evidence decisions that is higher than the level applied by the judicial system." You are the juror to your genealogy research. Are you convinced?

Additional Readings
Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. 2d ed. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1990.
National Genealogical Society. American Genealogy: A Basic Course. National Genealogical Society: Arlington, Virginia. 1991.
Prouse, Jeannette. Tracing Family Roots: A Beginners Guide To Genealogical Research. Pearland, TX: J. Prouse, 1997.
Prouse, Jeannette. Land Records, The Under Utilized Source In Genealogy. Pearland, TX: J. Prouse, 1999.
Prouse, Jeannette. "Bankruptcy In The District Courts." Under The Old Oak Tree (January 1998):1.
Rubincam, Milton. Pitfalls in Genealogical Research. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1987.
Sheppard, Walter Lee, Jr. "A What Proves a Lineage? Acceptable Standards of Evidence." In "Documentation for Lineage Papers: Two Perspectives." National Genealogical Society Quarterly 74 (June 1987): 124-30.
Stevenson, Noel C. Genealogical Evidence: A Guide to the Standard of Proof Relating to Pedigrees, Ancestry, Heirship and Family History. Rev. ed. Laguna Hills, Calif.: Aegean Park Press, 1990.


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