Analysis of Evidence in the Genealogical Proof Standard

The third condition of the Genealogical Proof Standard is that we “analyze and correlate the collected information to assess its quality as evidence.” This topic is one of the most difficult to master. I will therefore address several different aspects of analysis and correlation in several coming posts.

First, however, I would like to address the issue of analysis itself.

When I first began researching I was on the lookout for one thing: a record that provided information. This information had to provide direct evidence answering my research questions.

The term analysis in genealogical research goes far beyond this.

The key to full analysis of a record is to ask the right questions.

  • Who provided the information on the record?
  • What knowledge did the informant have of the information being reported?
  • Did the informant have any reason (valid or not) to intentionally report inaccurate information?
  • Could the informant have unintentionally reported inaccurate information, for any reason?
  • Could the informant read and write, or was the information attributed to them written by a third party?
  • What specific information does the record report?
  • What information does the record not report? (For example, a marriage license does not indicate marriage. In a case I researched several years ago, a couple purchased a marriage license, then purchased a second marriage license over a year later. There is also often a few days between the date of the marriage license and the date of the actual marriage, in nearly every case I have researched.)
  • What specific terms are used in the record? What do these specific terms mean, in the language in use during this time period?
  • What information is implied by the record? (For example, if a person’s age is reported, what does this imply about his year of birth?)

This is just a short list of the types of questions I ask about the records I locate. But these are not the only forms of analysis that one should perform:

  • If you are working with a deed, have you platted the land description, and located the tract on a map?
  • If you are working with an estate inventory, what does ownership of certain items imply about the decedent? (For example, if he owned books, you can infer that he was literate. If he owned blacksmith tools, you may be able to infer that he was a blacksmith.)
  • If you are working with a tax record, have you looked up the tax rates for that year? These generally appear in a tax act in the public statutes for the year.
  • If you are working with a church record, are you truly familiar with the liturgical laws concerning the sacrament in question?

Of course, there are many more forms of analysis that can be added to this list, as well.

You also want to ask yourself: does the information in this record suggest additional records that may hold relevant information?

  • In the federal census from 1850 through 1870, and after 1900, questions relating to the ownership of land appear. These would suggest a search for land records.
  • Many death certificates report in which cemetery the person was buried. Not only does this suggest a photo of the headstone, if the cemetery is attached to a church then it would suggest that your ancestor may have attended this church.
  • There are many different kinds of probate record: testamentary/administration bonds, estate inventories, lists of debts, lists of sales, administration accounts, probate court proceedings, guardian bonds, guardian accounts… If you have one, do you have them all?

Finding multiple, independent sources for our information is the surest way to reach an accurate conclusion. This not only involves the “reasonably exhaustive search” previously discussed, but also full analysis of each piece of information contained in the record.

The next several posts will describe various aspects of analysis and correlation.

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