Contradictions and discrepancies
Contradictory evidence and discrepancies are normal in genealogical research. A novice researcher tends to ignore discrepancies. Experienced researchers tend to embrace them.
The best way to analyze information is by thoroughly researching and comparing against each other ALL the sources about an ancestor and his family. Understanding how to interpret the sources cannot happen until a researcher has detected and analyzed the differences and similarities between sources. Pondering and explaining discrepancies and contradictions is a crucial part of the analysis process.
Any contradictory evidence must be resolved
The best researchers always openly acknowledge, analyze, and attempt to explain discrepancies. It shows the thoroughness of their research, their openness with all the evidence, and their analytical and reasoning skills. Knowing and admitting the weaknesses of a case leads to better analysis and conclusions. It strengthens the genealogical community by setting an example of honesty, and pointing the way to better interpretation of the evidence.
If a researcher hesitates to use sources with contradictions or discrepancies he may overlook important evidence. If he hesitates to mention discrepancies it makes his case look weaker. Other researchers may come to believe evidence was overlooked, or that such research is unreliable.
Weigh these factors
As you analyze a contradiction or discrepancy, weigh the following factors from the Wiki article Evaluate the Evidence to help determine which sources are most trustworthy, and to help explain possible causes of the problem:
- Relevance of the Record
- Category of the Record
- Format of the Record
- Nature of the Information
- Directness of the Evidence
- Consistency and Clarity of the Facts
- Likelihood of Events
Explain the problem and its resolution
In some cases the discrepancy may be so minor it need only be mentioned. Minor spelling variations of a name usually only need to be acknowledged in the source notes.
Any past controversies researchers have had over the evidence should be acknowledged and the resolution of the problem explained.
When genealogical research is significantly affected by conflicting evidence, or which lineage to follow hangs in the balance, a formal statement is in order. State the problem—explain how the evidence seems contradictory. Explain which version you believe is most reliable and why. Give one or more reasons why you believe the less reliable evidence was created.
Types of contradictions or discrepancies
These are some of the contradictions and discrepancies a genealogist typically faces:
Names and words are sometimes spelled different ways in genealogical documents. If you cannot find your ancestor’s name spelled several different ways, you probably have not yet learned how to search correctly.
Solution: Choose some way of consistently selecting a preferred spelling. Consistently use the spelling on the birth record, or the most predominant spelling, or some other criteria for displaying a spelling on your genealogical records. Mention the alternate spellings you find in source footnotes.
People and places sometimes have more than one name. People may go by their formal full name, by an alias, by married or maiden name, by nicknames, by middle name, by initials, or by abbreviated names. Different languages and different cultures affect the way names appear in records.
Solution: Most of the time name differences are somewhat obvious, for example Bill for William. But when a genealogist finds a document for an ancestor with a less obvious name change it is best to explain why it is the same person.
Probably the most common cause of date differences is faulty memory. Usually, a date which were recorded near the time of an event is more reliable than a date recorded years later from memory. Also, calendar systems vary from place to place and from time to time. Be sure you understand the calendar your ancestor used, especially when the calendar changed at the beginning of the year, or during the switch from Julian to Gregorian calendar.
Solution: Weighing all the factors in favor and against the reliability of documents with conflicting dates for the same event, choose the one you judge to be most reliable. Use it on your genealogy, and explain what accounts for the others in footnotes.
Boundaries and place names sometimes change. As a result of boundary changes a family living in the same house over a lifetime may have had to visit three or four county seats to conduct their business. The same town may sometimes go by an Indian or a different European name. Researchers often give modern names for places that went by a different name at the time of the event—for example, pre-Civil War West Virginia.
Solution: Decide to consistently use either the old name/jurisdiction at the time of the event, or the modern name/jurisdiction and stick with that decision. Use footnotes to explain the other versions.
Sometimes relationship terms are used in ways that are unexpected. Proximity implies a relationship, but can also be misleading. In the American colonies parents often sent their eight- or nine-year-old children to a friend’s household to raise to avoid spoiling them, or to give them a trade or education.
Solution: Always explain relationships that are not what they appear. If there has been a controversy, or if the lineage is in doubt, formally list, and explain all the possibilities, and how you arrived at your conclusion. Remember to explain conflicting evidence as best as possible.
Always question the independence of sources. Did one source depend on the other for information, or did it come by that information without reference to the other? Was there a motive for the information provider, recorder, record keeper, or a genealogist to ‘fudge’?
Solution: An important part of genealogical research is the gathering, collation, correlation, interpretation, and analysis of all available sources against each other. When almost all the available sources about a family have been considered, you are best able to judge which are the most reliable, and reach reasonable conclusions. Write a statement explaining your thinking and share it with other researchers.
- The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual (Orem, Utah: Ancestry Publishing, 2000), 1-2, and Thomas W. Jones, "Proved?: Five Ways to Prove Who Your Ancestor Was" (printed handout for a lecture presented to library staff, 23 October 2003, Family History Library, Salt Lake City), 1.