Evaluate the Evidence
Having found one or more records about a person, it is time to evaluate what you found and determine how helpful and reliable it is. For example, a birth date from a birth record is probably more accurate than a birth date derived from a census record.
Evaluating the evidence takes place in several phases. It starts as soon as you find a document that must be evaluated to see if it is relevant to the family you are researching. It continues as you transfer the information from the source to your genealogical records and compose a source footnote. In that phase you are evaluating in two ways: (1) a preliminary evaluation of the reliability of the source, and (2) a comparison and contrast of data on the source with other information about the family to see if it corroborates or contradicts other sources. Later, after research on the family is mostly completed, carefully make a final, well-reasoned re-evaluation of all the sources compared to each other to help you reach a reasonable conclusion and write a proof statement subject to the Genealogical Proof Standard.
The records you have found provide evidence relative to your objective. Evidence is information or facts about an event or a situation. The researcher must evaluate if the evidence is valid for meeting the research objective and therefore producing some level of proof. You will want to consider all relevant evidence, but remember that all evidence is not equal.
The process of genealogical research seeks information (facts about events) to answer questions (research objectives) about people. The records searched are the source of the information; therefore you must evaluate both the information you found and the record(s) in which you found it. When considering the record, evaluate its—
When considering the information, compare it with what you have found in other sources and evaluate the—
- origin of the information
- facts given in the records
- events described
- directness of the evidence
Here are some sample types of questions you may wish to ask:
- When and where was the record created?
- Who created the record?
- Why was the record created?
- Who provided the information for the record?
- How was the information recorded?
- How was the record preserved?
- What kind of information is missing or incomplete in the record?
- Are there any other records that are usually associated with the record?
- Which records came just before and after this record and would they give further information?
- Is the record part of a series of records that may contain further information about the family?
- Where are other associated records located?
- How reliable is the information contained in the record?
- What other information is suggested by the record but missing?
Evaluating all of these elements together will help you determine what level of proof you have found, and if more research is needed. The Genealogical Proof Standard shows how to evaluate and use all the evidence to create a credible proof statement.
Relevance of the Record
The first evaluation to make is whether the record pertains to the person or family being searched. For example, the christening record of a person with the right name about the right time may not be the person you are seeking. Be especially careful when dealing with common names in densely populated areas. Review other records of the locality to determine how common the name may have been in that place.
Category of the Record
Each category of records has to be evaluated differently. Some tend to be more accurate than others.
- Original records tend to be more accurate than derivative records. They were written close in time to the events they record. However, on occasion the recorder may have made a mistake. Infrequently an original record is deliberately falsified, such as "back dating" a marriage to account for the early birth of the first child. Even a source recorded close to the time of the event may have errors.
- Derivative records tend to be easier to use and contain more information. However, they represent a reiteration of information from one or more other sources. The author may not have had enough information to adequately interpret the other sources. On the other hand, the compiler may have known of errors in the other sources and corrected or explained them in the compilation.
- Finding aids sometimes contain mistakes that can mislead the researcher, such as wrong page numbers in an index.
- Background information is sometimes misinterpreted or applied incorrectly to individual cases. For example, just because most immigrants joined friends or relatives in their new country does not mean your ancestor had relatives when he arrived in his new country.
Format of the Record
Photographic copies, including microfilm, microfiche, digital, and photocopies are virtually as good as the actual document, although they may sometimes be hard to read. Be on the watch for deliberate alterations. Any errors would be the fault of the person who made the record.
Copy error may be introduced if the document was transcribed, extracted, or abstracted. If such copies are printed or published, the researcher must also consider possible typographical errors. Generally the further removed the copy is from the actual document, the more errors are likely to have accumulated. See "Formats of Records."
Nature of the Information
A key to interpreting information is determining how close in time it was recorded to the event it describes. Information is the statement(s) of fact(s) in a record, not the record itself. It is either primary or secondary.
Primary Information was recorded at or near the time of the event by someone closely associated with it. It is usually found in original records. However, not all information in an original record is "primary." For example, a death record usually contains primary information about the death, but secondary information about the person's birth. If the information does not come from a primary account of the event, consider it suspect. If you cannot determine where the information originated, it is undocumented, and therefore less reliable information.
Secondary Information was recorded much later than the event or recorded by a person who was not associated with the event. Thus a census taker, who records an adult's age, is recording secondary birth information. The further removed the record is from the event or situation it is reporting, the more secondary it is. Most derivative records and many printed records (except directories and newspapers) contain secondary information, but not all printed information is secondary.
Accuracy. Secondary information is not necessarily less correct. In any record, a recorder can make a mistake or may deliberately mislead. With secondary information, the chance for error is increased because the recorder is not familiar with the events and may have to interpret information from several sources. In printed information, (either primary or secondary) errors may be made in the publishing process.
Sources of Information. Ask who recorded the information and how the recorder knew what happened. This will help you determine if the information is primary or secondary.
Insufficient Information. Often information is missing from a record you expect should include it. For example, you may only have the year for a marriage or the province, not the town, of an event. Sometimes the clerk did not know or could not remember the specific information. If such information is all you have, consider the following:
- Trustworthiness. Was the informant or recorder trustworthy? Did he have a reputation of careful accuracy or does he tend to exaggerate? Did she have the necessary knowledge to have recorded the information? Was the recorder disinterested, with no motivation to falsify the facts?
- Necessity. If no other record is available, it may be necessary to accept unverified evidence, as long as it does not conflict with any proven record.
- Origin. Determine where the information originated. Was the information recorded before you began your search, before any controversy, or before it could be influenced by other information you have found?
Directness of the Evidence
The information in a record is contained in a statement that provides either direct or indirect evidence regarding your research objective.
Direct statements give a straightforward fact. For example, a baptismal record may state the birth date of the child being baptized. Whenever possible, try to find records that directly state specific facts as proof of a genealogical event or relationship.
Indirect statements support a fact by reasonable inference. For example, if a census record lists a person's age as 45 in 1851, it implies a birth in or near 1806. Often you may need to gather more substantial information. For example, a marriage record is evidence a couple was born, but unless it gives the age of the bride or groom, you can only guess at their birth dates. The couple may have been born 16 or 60 years earlier. Indirect (often called circumstantial) evidence usually requires additional evidence to prove a fact.
Consistency and Clarity of the Facts
As you evaluate the information in the records you found, you must determine how well the facts were recorded. Learn, by comparing the information with other information you have, if the facts are consistent with other facts. Also evaluate if they were clearly recorded. Leaving no ambiguity of meaning and if they suggest other sources to search.
Consistent Facts. Are any facts inconsistent with other facts? For example, is the birth date of a child one year after the death date of the child's mother? When facts conflict, you must determine which facts if either, are accurate, so that information fits into a consistent pattern.
Corroborating or Conflicting Sources. Do independent sources created without reference to each other agree on the facts? Does the information you found contradict other sources? For example, is a person's birth date on the death certificate different from the birth date on the marriage license? When information conflicts, consider which information, if any, is primary. It may be necessary to seek more evidence.
Does the record suggest other records you may search? For example, does an obituary refer to an undertaker, a cemetery, or church that may have records? Does a record indicate how many children a mother gave birth to, and does that match the information you already had? If not, you may want to search other records for additional children.
Look specifically at the names, dates, places and relationships given in the record. Ask some of the following questions:
Names. Are they clearly recorded? Are acceptable spelling variations used? Do the names match those presently known for the family? If you discovered new names, such as a mother's maiden name, verify that name in other records, such as the birth records of other children. Were naming patterns used in this culture, and did the family follow those patterns.
Dates. Are the dates written in an understandable style? The date of 12/8/1853 may mean December 8th or August 12th, depending on the style of the recorder. Which calendar did the recorder use?
- Most countries changed from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar between 1582 (in Europe) and 1752 (Great Britain and her colonies). Prior to the change, the months were numbered differently in many countries (for example, October was the eighth month) and the year began on a different date (usually on 25 March.)
- Areas under French control used a different calendar from 1797 to 1805.
Places. Are the places named and clearly identified? Do place names match those given in other information about the family? Places of origin or foreign names may not have been recorded accurately. Names of cities may also be the names of states or counties, such as Hannover or York. Can you determine the jurisdictions for the places given?
Relationships. Does the document state relationships directly, or only suggest them? For example, some census records give the relationship of persons to the head of the household, while others only list all persons living in the home. Relationships may be inferred, but this leaves room for false assumptions. Relationship terms in past years often had different meanings from today, for example, in the 1800s, the father-in-law also meant step-father.
Likelihood of Events
Even if the events were clearly recorded, you must also determine if the events described in the records really could have happened. Some events, such as joining the military at the age of ten or twelve, being born on the father's birthday, a probate inventory showing a considerably larger estate for a person than recent tax lists or census records indicated, are less credible than others. Such events are possible, but unlikely.
If the records present an unlikely situation, you may have stumbled across records of two unrelated people with similar names. Evaluate the chronology of the situation: could this event have happened as the record says it did? If a man's will was proven on 28 November 1754 and his death record gives a death date of 15 December of the same year, one of the records is wrong, or does not pertain to the same person.
Each record and each piece of evidence in a record can be evaluated individually, but proof is the accumulation of acceptable evidence. Absolute proof is seldom possible, but a sufficient degree of "genealogical proof" should be the goal of each researcher. To genealogically prove a fact, you must find decisive evidence that confirms one view and excludes other reasonable possibilities. You are responsible for determining if the accumulated evidence provides "clear and convincing" proof of a genealogical fact.
If the records you find are relevant to your objective, consider the categories and formats of the records, the origin of the information, credibility of the alleged facts, likelihood of events and whether the evidence is direct or indirect. Each of these aspects must be evaluated differently to judge the reliability of family history information.
Usually you will want to accept an original record with primary information that provides direct evidence. However, when such a source is not available, or cannot be believed (lacks credibility) because it contradicts other known facts, seek other sources and evaluate them for accuracy.
Clear and convincing evidence
Clear and convincing evidence means that the accumulated evidence in favor of a point is so strong that any reasonable person would also make the same conclusions. Sometimes it is not possible to find acceptable records that provide direct evidence. Sometimes the records needed to directly prove a point were not kept or preserved. In such cases, researchers try to accumulate enough evidence from other sources that they can make a statement that is "clear and convincing." Any contradictions should be resolved before connections based on that evidence are accepted.
In most cases, evidence in an original record created closest to the event is most likely to be correct. However, if several credible records (original or derivative) of a later date suggest different information, the evidence that the first record is incorrect may be clear and convincing. Sometimes this is called the preponderance of the evidence.
If the information you need to meet your objective is insufficient (see Insufficient Information) then you may want to—
- Look for more records of the same kind.
- Look for more records from the same record type group.
- Look for more records in a different jurisdiction.
- Look for more records in different repositories.
- Reevaluate the objective.
For further suggestions about evaluating evidence see—
Genealogical Proof Standard
Use the five elements of the Genealogical Proof Standard as a guide to help improve the quality of your research, evaluation of the evidence, and reasoning:
- A reasonably exhaustive search has been conducted.
- Each statement of fact has a complete and accurate source citation.
- The evidence is reliable, and has been skillfully correlated and interpreted.
- Any contradictory evidence has been resolved.
- The conclusion has been soundly reasoned.
Near the end of research on especially controversial connections, or significant families, compose a "proof statement" that explains how you reached your conclusions. Using the Genealogical Proof Standard will significantly increase the likelihood that your genealogical conclusions reflect what really happened.
Any proof statement is subject to re-evaluation when new evidence arises.
- Thomas W. Jones, Inferential Genealogy. (120 minute video online) FamilySearch Research Classes Online, 2010.