Devon Noel Lee
The Basics of Evaluating Evidence While Researching Your Family Tree
Have you found yourself asking, "how do I know this document is about my ancestor?" Or, "how reliable is this genealogy source?" If you have, then you are evaluating evidence in your genealogy research.
Learn some fundamental genealogy principles that can help you climb your family tree with confidence.
Why do genealogists gather evidence?
While doing genealogy research, you gather clues. As you gather those clues together, you create a pile of evidence about an ancestor. Hopefully, you'll gather so much evidence that if you saw your ancestor walking down the street, you'd be able to pick them out.
In the video below, I demonstrate how to confidently evaluate your own genealogy sources by featuring Henry J. Geiszler's death certificate. Click on this link to watch.
What are sources in genealogy?
In genealogy, a source can be anything that provides you information about your ancestor.
They can be:
interviews (written transcripts, audio clippings, video files)
For genealogy source ideas, be sure you download my free Brick Wall Busting Guide, which includes an exhaustive list of US genealogy record types.
The most essential detail on a genealogy source is the information it provides about your ancestor. If you're not sure if the record does relate to your ancestor, read this blog post as well as the rest of this article.
Questions to Ask About Genealogy Sources
When you're looking at your sources, you're trying to ask a couple of things.
What is it?
Why was it created?
Where is the source kept?
Bonus Question: Did I save it?
You need to understand the type of source you're looking at. What media form are you reviewing: book, digital images, photocopies, loose documents, or audio files.
You want to understand the caretake for the resource.
How was the record preserved?
Is the record part of a series of documents that may contain further information about the family?
Are there any other records that are usually associated with the collection?
Where are other associated sources located?
Before you continue evaluating your record, be sure to save a link to any of your digital discoveries to a family tree. That way, you can always get back to your source when you need it again.
Another pro genealogy tip: Review the collection information. FamilySearch, Ancestry, MyHeritage, and other record collection providers share information about creating the collection. Be sure you read that information to help you answer the questions above.
What Information Does a Genealogy Source Provide?
Genealogy sources can provide a lot of details. These details can be provided by someone who witnessed the event or by someone who compiled information about the event later.
In a Tax Record, you can know information about your ancestor's property and how much taxes he or she paid. Typically US tax records were created by county assessors and collectors. They witnessed the property your ancestor owned or the taxes they paid.
In a death record, a lot of information is provided by several sources.
When an informant is named, they may provide biographical information.
When the attending physician was specified, they provided information about the deceased cause and time of death.
If an undertaker was identified, they provided the date and place the individual was buried.
In some cases, these individuals had first-hand knowledge of the recorded details. In other cases, they are providing second-hand information.
The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual provides guidelines on determining the reliability of the information on each relevant genealogy source.
Questions to Ask About Informants on Genealogy Records
In many genealogy records, it's unclear who provided the information to the document creator. Census records before 1940 fall into this category.
If you can determine who provided the information on a record, you should ask the following questions:
Would the informant have witnessed all of the recorded information?
Would the informant have any reason to lie?
When are they recording the information they provided?
Why did they not include information?
Why did they give the details rather than allow another person?
↪️ Are you new to genealogy? Grab your copy of this FREE Beginner Guide:
How Genealogy Sources Answer Research Questions
Experienced genealogists rely on quality research questions for success in climbing their family tree. With their questions in mind, they review the information on a genealogical document or source material and determine how it answers their query.
Information from a genealogy resource can answer questions:
Direct Genealogy Evidence
For genealogy information to be direct evidence, it must answer a question without any ambiguity. The answer may rely on one quality genealogy resource.
If the question is, "Who is Henry Geiszler?" direct evidence will provide the full name (i.e., Magdalena Hoppe).
Indirect Genealogy Evidence
Indirect evidence requires you to make an educated judgment based on available information.
Suppose the question is, "What is Henry Geiszler?". In that case, you can indirectly answer the problem with a death date and the age at death in months, days, and years using a birthdate calculator.
Negative Genealogy Evidence
Think of negative evidence as an absence of evidence, not that the evidence disproves other information. This category of evidence is too confusing.
On the basic level, one could say it includes the following example.
For instance, a death record does not have the name of the deceased's parents. The lack of information is negative evidence, particularly if the informant should have known the parents' names.
It could also include searching for a man in tax records. When they stop appearing in these records beginning at a specific date, then you have negative evidence. You can then use that negative evidence to suggest they died, aged out of paying taxes, or moved.
To keep it simple, focus on negative evidence being the lack of information you would expect to have found.
Which Type of Genealogy Evidence is Best?
That is a trick question.
You have to determine which evidence provides the correct answer.
A woman might directly state that her parents are Frank and Lola Shelley on her marriage record, and the parents might be listed as unknown on all other documents for this ancestor and their siblings.
Why wouldn't the other siblings name their parents given the opportunity?
It could be that they were unknown. And it could be that the child who did name her parents might have falsified their names to marry into her groom's family.
In genealogy, we would typically throw out such a theory unless we have enough evidence that proves it is accurate. However, the point is that genealogy records are not infallible.
Proceed with caution, and don't stop your research because there is the possibility that every record contains errors. Instead, be open to the chance that you'll stumble upon inaccurate details from time to time.
Three Quick Questions to Ask Each Time You Review a Genealogy Source:
To sum up, I like to keep things simple so that I'll remember them. You can do the same each time you review a genealogy document. Ask yourself:
What kind of source am I looking at?
What type of information is on it?
How reliable is the data?
Continue Learning About Evaluating Genealogy Records
If you want to learn more about evaluating evidence, I think you'll enjoy the following tips and training.
5 Questions Genealogists Need to Ask (Family Tree Magazine)
Evaluating Genealogy Evidence (Legacy Tree Genealogists)
Links to images featured in this video:
Diary on Hathitrust
Bible on FamilySearch
Catholic Confirmation Record on Findmypast
Military Draft Record on Ancestry
Passenger List on Ancestry