Monday, September 7, 2009

Dear Genea-Man: What is Proof? (Revisited)

Dear Genea-Man,

For "proof," must I have a birth, death or marriage certificate or is something else considered "proof", i.e. Census info? Are birth, death or marriage certificates the only way to resolve conflicting information?

Dear Colleague,

Your question about "proof" is the hardest one to answer definitively in all of genealogy research - "how much and what kind of evidence is enough?" And then you asked the next hardest question - "how do I resolve conflicts in information?"

For some organizations such as lineage societies, you must submit "proof" in the form of birth, marriage and death certificates, wills, deeds, Bible records, naturalization records, military records, etc. If you cannot adequately document the relationships to their standards, then you haven't proved your claimed line.

For all of your research problems (especially when there are sparse or no vital records available), you need to collect every scrap of evidence that you can from every place that holds them, and then you weigh that evidence and draw conclusions. If there are vital records available, you should still try to gather all evidence you can, because one or more items in a record may be wrong (e.g., a birth, death or marriage certificate is only as good as the knowledge and communication skills of the person providing the information, and the ability of the clerk to accurately record the information - the clerk is not an omniscient person).

The Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) is described in some detail on the Board of Certified Genealogists (BCG) web site at and in lots of detail in the book BCG Genealogical Standards Manual (see There are examples of sample work products from successful certification portfolios and published articles at Look at the Proof Argument articles and the Research Report examples.

Original source records are better than derivative source records, Primary information is better than secondary information, direct evidence is better than indirect evidence. However, many relationships have been proved by indirect evidence obtained from secondary information in derivative sources, as long as the Genealogical Proof Standard has been applied to the evaluation. The key is the exhaustive search for records and then resolving any conflicts in evidence.

You can learn a lot by reading what other researchers have done. There are case studies in each issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ) ( and New England Historical and Genealogical Register (NEHGR) ( journals (among others). Many libraries, including Chula Vista's, has many years of these on the shelf, but they cannot be borrowed.

There are also many articles on these subjects online at Ancestry - go to (it's free) and input search words like "proof evidence sources" and you will get many hits. I input "conflicting" into the search box and found these articles (out of 423 matches):

* "Evaluating Evidence" by Patricia Law Hatcher at

* "Corroborating or Conflicting Evidence" by Patricia Law Hatcher at

* "Corroborating or Conflicting Evidence - Part 2" by Patricia Law Hatcher at

* "When It Just Doesn't Add Up" by Juliana Smith at

* "Using Clues: The Pros and Cons of Secondary Information" by Juliana Smith at

* "Weighing the Evidence" by George G. Morgan at

* "Building a Case When No Record 'Proves' A Point" by Elizabeth Shown Mills at

There are many other articles by respected and professional genealogists in this Ancestry article archive. There are also general and specific books about Records, Information, Sources, Evidence, Proof, etc. - you can buy them at the Ancestry Store (, Amazon ( or the specific book publisher web sites.Stephen Danko had an excellent series of articles in August 2006 discussing these issues, with examples of his critical evaluation of the evidence, on his blog - see

* A Preponderance of Evidence
* The Genealogical Proof Standard
* Complete, Accurate Citations
* Original Sources, Derivative Sources, Exact Images, and Original Records
* New Definitions of Original Source and Derivative Source (A Proposal)
* Primary and Secondary Information
* Evaluating the Quality of Aunt Mary's Records

I am convinced that many genealogy research problems can be solved by applying the GPS - doing the exhaustive record search, critically evaluating all evidence, resolving conflicts and arriving at a reasoned conclusion. The challenge for each of us is doing it with limited knowledge, time and resources.


This is a question from one of my society colleagues who is trying to do research the right way. The society members range in experience from beginner to advanced, and there is so much material available that it can be overwhelming to many members. I write these answers hoping that they will gain knowledge by breaking it down into a manageable reading list, and then hoping they will apply the lessons learned to gain experience and confidence. It also helps focus my research efforts, and perhaps it will help some of my readers learn more about genealogy research and family history. As you can tell, I am NOT an expert in this field - just a genealogist with a keyboard.

NOTE: While I'm on vacation, I've been posting "Best of Genea-Musings" articles. This article was originally published on 13 December 2007.

1 comment:

History Hunter said...

Dear Randy;

I can fully appreciate the difficulties expressed in the article. Even more problematical is that I've yet to see anyone explain how to do the noted analysis within the context of any of the current genealogical programs. They appear to be record-focused with little inherent capability to allow such things as proof arguments for more complex analyses.

Have you had any success in implementing the concept of a proof argument in an app such as RM7? If you've found a technique that allows you to do that, could you share how you went about it?