Assessing the reliability of a statement

Several weeks ago, the following question was posed on the APG Members mailing list:

I need to get an idea of whether people think that a statement (follows) in a letter can be reliably accepted as proof of relationship.

Belle (Skinner) Capwell wrote a letter in 1930 to Kate Black, saying, “Sally Goodrich Cheney [Kate's great-grandmother] was a sister of my grandmother Betsy Goodrich Skinner.” Betsy (Goodrich) Skinner died in 1876, when Belle (Skinner) Capwell was 14; Belle’s father, Daniel Skinner, died in 1881. So Belle might very well have gotten this relationship information firsthand from her grandmother or father. The Cheney family had moved to Illinois before Belle was born, so she might not have known them, unless they came back to NY for a visit.

The Goodrich/Goodridge genealogy by Edwin Alonzo Goodridge included Betsy (and Sally?)’s father, Edmund Goodrich/Goodridge, but Sally was apparently born after the family moved to NY from Newbury, MA, and the list of children in the genealogy includes only the three born in Newbury. I’ve been trying to locate records in Chautauqua Co., NY, where Edmund died, that might tie him to Sally, but so far have had no luck (he lived with Daniel Skinner at his death, and there is no probate file).

I do still need to investigate deeds for him in Chautauqua Co., but in the meantime, I want to get an idea (Elizabeth?) of whether a genealogical journal editor would accept that statement in the letter as proof. Belle wrote the letter to Kate because Belle wanted to join the DAR and was hoping that Kate might have info about the Goodrich family that might lead her to Revolutionary War ancestors.[1]

This researcher has raised a very important issue in evidence analysis by genealogists. How do we assess the reliability of this statement? For that matter, how do we assess the reliability of any statement in any record?

Here are the first questions that I ask myself when assessing any statement:

  • Who made the statement?
  • Who did they make the statement to?
  • Why did they make the statement?
  • What was the informant’s knowledge of the event being reported?
  • Did any reason exist for the informant to deliberately make a false statement?

In this example, the researcher had already identified the responses to most of these questions. Sometimes analysis does come down to asking yourself specific questions and formulating specific answers.

First, let’s clearly delineate the statement being evaluated: “Sally Goodrich Cheney [Kate's great-grandmother] was a sister of my grandmother Betsy Goodrich Skinner.”

This statement provides evidence of a sibling relationship between Sally (Goodrich) Cheney and Betsy (Goodrich) Skinner. Our objective is to evaluate the reliability of this evidence.

Who made the statement? The statement was made by Belle (Skinner) Capwell, granddaughter of Betsy (Goodrich) Skinner.

Who did they make the statement to? The statement was made to Kate Black, great-granddaughter of Sally (Goodrich) Cheney.

Why did they make the statement? Belle was contacting Kate, her first cousin once removed, for information about their mutual Goodrich family. We do not know whether Belle and Kate knew each other. However, the structure of the sentence explicitly expressing the relationship between Belle’s grandmother and Kate’s great-grandmother implies that Kate did not know Belle personally, but that Kate may have known her great-grandmother Sally. Belle’s appeal was through the relationship that Belle’s grandmother had with Kate’s great-grandmother, rather than through a direct association.

The more specific response to this question is that Belle made the statement in pursuit of her goal to join the Daughters of the American Revolution, a lineage society. Though the proof standards required by the DAR in 1930 were far shy of those required by the DAR today (and even further shy of what the BCG might require), there is still the assumption that, by contacting more distant family members, she was striving for a certain level of accuracy. (Remember these were the days before the Family History Library and the Internet, before even the WPA and their work with historic records, when many records were not yet centralized in state repositories but held in private hands or spread out among various courthouse attics and basements. Research was different then.)

What was the informant’s knowledge of the event being reported? This question is vital, but the answer is much more complicated than you might initially believe. One might immediately think, “Belle was not present at her grandmother’s birth, so her knowledge has to be secondary.” But take a look at the statement we are evaluating: this is a direct statement about the relationship, not about the birth. Could Belle have had direct knowledge that Sally and Betsy were sisters? To answer this, we have to look at the relationship between Belle and her grandmother Betsy.

The researcher had obviously already taken this into consideration: “Betsy (Goodrich) Skinner died in 1876, when Belle (Skinner) Capwell was 14; Belle’s father, Daniel Skinner, died in 1881. So Belle might very well have gotten this relationship information firsthand from her grandmother or father. The Cheney family had moved to Illinois before Belle was born, so she might not have known them, unless they came back to NY for a visit.” This shows that Belle almost certainly knew her grandmother for the first 14 years of her life. We do not know (from the limited information provided) how old Belle was when she wrote the letter, though this could affect the reliability somewhat.

So, as the researcher here noted herself, Belle could have learned of the relationship from her grandmother. Imagine Betsy sitting there talking to her granddaughter, mentioning “my sister Sally.”

It is not entirely unlikely, either, that Belle had met her grandmother’s sister in person. Migrant family members often returned to visit the family left behind. Illinois was not too far from New York. So the possibility definitely exists that Belle had met Sally.

Did any reason exist for the informant to deliberately make a false statement? Regardless of whether or not Belle and Kate knew each other, the bottom line is that they were part of an extended family. The letter was an inquiry about their family history. While the potential for bias existed in Belle’s desire to join the Daughters of American Revolution, this potential bias would most likely manifest itself in the lineage application itself. It would not likely apply to a statement in a private letter from one “cousin” to another, inquiring about their mutual family.

So, after asking ourselves just these first few questions, it becomes apparent that Belle was likely stating the truth of Sally and Betsy’s relationship as she understood it, and that she was in a position to have had personal knowledge of this relationship.

In other words, the statement of the relationship is probably highly reliable.

The next step in assessing the reliability of a statement, after examining the context of the statement itself, as demonstrated here, is to compare this information with that provided by other records. Yet the information provided by each of these records must itself be assessed internally, in the way discussed here, before it can be compared effectively with other records. When contradictory evidence is discovered, researchers must consider how reliable the conflicting statements are in determining which is most likely to be accurate.

SOURCES:

[1] Christine Crawford-Oppenheimer (email reserved for private use), e-mail, “Assessment of reliability of a statement in a letter,” to APG Members Mailing List, 9 March 2012. Reprinted with permission of author.

If you would like to cite this post: Michael Hait, “Assessing the reliability of a statement,” Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 9 April 2012 (http://michaelhait.wordpress.com : accessed [access date]). [Please also feel free to include a hyperlink to the specific article if you are citing this post in an online forum.]

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