Tuesday, 9 June 2015

What is Genealogical Evidence?

What is evidence? Is someone else’s online tree ‘evidence’? There are some accurate and well researched family trees online. Equally there are some that are beyond fanciful, with people having children five years after they have died, or at the age of three. Then there are the creative genealogists who subscribe to such theories as, ‘They got married in 1825 so they must have been born in 1800’, because of course everyone gets married at the age of 25. Or ‘I have someone of roughly the right name in roughly the right place, the age is a couple of years out but hey it must be him.’ Have you actually looked for alternatives? How complete are the indexes you are using? Could there be equally, or even more, suitable alternatives in records that have yet to be included in that index? How well do you actually understand the data set that you are asking your subscription website of choice to search? And then there is my pet hate, ‘He was baptised in 1750 so he must have been born in 1750’. Why? How do you know? Do you actually have any evidence beyond the knowledge that the majority of baptisms were of young infants? What you should be doing, if you assign a birth date at all, is recording that birth as about 1750 and looking for corroborating evidence that this was indeed that individual’s date if birth. If that evidence is not forthcoming then the about remains.

There is also the question of how much proof do you require? How much evidence do you seek before adding an individual to your family tree? One piece of evidence? Two? Three? Clearly what is key here is the quality and likely reliability of that evidence. One person has recorded this on their online family tree, to my mind is next to worthless as evidence. Ah, you may say but five people have the same line on their online family tree. How do you know that researchers (and I use the term loosely) two to five have not just lifted researcher one’s information and grafted it on to their tree?

Forget online trees for a moment. What about ‘granny says…….’. This maybe ok, how is granny’s memory? Do great auntie and great uncle agree with her? Are there any official documents, birth certificates, newspaper reports, census returns, to back this up? The further back our family trees extend the harder it becomes to find one piece of reliable evidence, let alone anything that might be termed corroboration. This is the point at which you should stop scrambling backwards, pause until new evidence is unearthed and enjoy finding out more about the individuals that you already have whilst you wait.

The size of the population in the area and era that you are researching and the name of the individual may also effect how much evidence you feel you need before deciding that you have linked two records correctly. I am searching for a John Smith (yes really) in London in the late 1700s. If I find a baptism of a John Smith in London in 1799, even if the John Smith is in the parish where ‘my’ John Smith married do I make that connection? – probably not. Even if I have ‘my’ John Smith’s place and approximate date of birth from the 1851 census do I? If the place is a highly populated London parish maybe still no. If I know ’my’ John Smith’s father’s name (from his marriage certificate for example) and that agrees (especially if it is a more unusual christian name) then maybe I am getting somewhere. On the other hand, if I have a Crispin Pepperell in a small rural Devon parish (and I do) then I may be quicker to assume I have the correct person.

I appreciate that many people live thousands of miles from the focus of their research but this is not a reason to accept second hand ‘evidence’. As far as I am concerned an original source, or a digital image of that source is evidence, an index or transcription is not. Agreed, transcriptions and indexes are brilliant finding aids and providing they are done well, can lead us to original sources but they are not evidence in themselves. Ironically, it seems that the easier it becomes to access original records at a distance, the less people are seeking them out and the more content they are to rely on indirect data or non-evidence. I accept that there are many rigorous and diligent researchers out there but increasingly I see family trees where the compiler appears to require no evidence at all. There are a number of books and articles about genealogical proof available, it is worth taking time out from genealogical research to look at some of these.[1]

If people get fun out of building the biggest family tree in the world by melding their data with that of others without checking it, without researching it, without even thinking about it, who am I to spoil their fun? Just don’t kid yourselves that this is family history or even genealogy. This is mere pedigree hunting and the pedigree you have snared is highly likely to be inaccurate or not your own. As Anthony Camp, former Director of the Society of Genealogists, once said, ‘With poor knowledge of the sources and little care, the person who comes out of the shadows may just be a skeleton or more often a botched up monster of a Frankenstein, two people rolled into one, or one cut down the middle and married off to someone he probably never knew in real life’.
Janet Few

[1] http://www.bcgcertification.org/resources/standard.html. Jones, Thomas W. Mastering Genealogical Proof (Arlington, Va.: National Genealogical Society, 2013). Mills, Elizabeth Shown Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, rev. ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2009).


  1. So true, Janet. But good to be reminded of why we can't just accept the first bit of evidence we come across

  2. Applaud you for researching John Smith, any time, any place. I have one in Rockingham County Virginia area, mid 1800's. I just cannot get up the oomph to actually research him.


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