The most important thing you can ever prove

This blog has spent a lot of time discussing the Genealogical Proof Standard, especially focusing on the use and analysis of multiple documents.

The most important fact that you can ever prove—the basis of all of our research—is the identity of the subject of each record. When you find a marriage record for John Smith, how do you know it is the same John Smith that you are looking for? No matter how unique you believe a name is, you still have to prove that the record actually pertains to the subject of your research.

Several situations make this determination extremely important:

Same name, same place, same time. This is the most common issue of identity. One of my ancestors, Henry Hait, was one of three men named Henry Hait or Henry Hoyt living in Stamford, Connecticut, during his lifetime. Learning about my Henry involved being sure that the Henry Hait in each individual record I found was mine, and not some other one. This dilemma is so rampant that it is even commonly called the “same name” trap.

Same name, same age, same place, different times. I believe that this situation may have resulted in more inaccurate family trees than even the more well-known trap mentioned above. Imagine that a man named George Burgess (fictional name) shows up in records from his birth in 1830 through early adulthood in 1850, all in the context of his immediate family. Then another man named George Burgess born around 1830 shows up in records in the same jurisdiction from his marriage in 1851 through his death in 1900. The two men never show up in the same records at the same time. If you don’t take the time to thoroughly examine all available evidence, it is easy to conclude that all of the records pertain to the same George Burgess. Never mind that the reality is that the younger George Burgess—with the rest of the family—moved out west, the year before the older George Burgess moved into town from the next county over. Regardless of which George Burgess you are researching, falling prey to this trap would create an inaccurate family history.

Same name, different place, different time. I call this the “Shaky Leaf” problem. No serious genealogist should ever fall for this one. Just because a shaky leaf (or any other “intelligent” automatic search feature) tells you that a family tree has someone with the same name, doesn’t mean that you should attach it to the tree. (But if you are reading this blog, you probably already know this.)

How do you establish identity?

Each record should contain both internal and external clues as to the identity of the subject. To prove identity, you can use these clues with clues in other records to form a solid body of evidence.

Internal clues are those attributes about the subject that tell you more about their lives: their age, wife’s name and age, children’s names and ages, occupation, birthplace, religious affiliation, etc.

In a recent case, for example, I was searching for a man named Joseph Adams. I was able to reconstruct his immediate family based on later records of his children in adulthood, but had no information about him. Using the ages of his children, I was able to identify his 1830 federal census record among the records of other men of the same name.

External clues are those attributes about the world around the subject that tell you more about them: their neighbors and neighborhood.

Once I had identified Joseph Adams in the 1830 federal census, I proceeded to look for all of his neighbors in the 1830 city directory. Their addresses pointed me to the precise neighborhood that Joseph lived in. Using a map, this allowed me to identify the correct Joseph in that same city directory, which provided his street address and occupation. This then allowed me to locate the correct Joseph in earlier and later city directories. These facts about Joseph’s life begin to form a portrait of the man that will help in resolving identity issues in other records.

Another case study that I am currently revising for possible future publication in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly involves the second problem described above. Without giving away too much detail, I can describe the problem here.

  • A man (“TB2”) lived in Baltimore County by 1783 and died there in 1836. Federal census records prior to his death estimate a date of birth between 1740 and 1750.
  • Another man (“TB1”) lived in Baltimore County by the 1740s, and recorded the births of his children in one of the three parishes that covered then-Baltimore County—including a son named “TB2” born in 1747.

The full case study not only disproves that TB2 was the son of TB1, but uses other attributes of TB2’s life to identify TB2’s parents and grandparents. No direct evidence connects TB2 to his other family members. It is only by using the internal and external clues in all of the records of both TB1 and TB2 that the true relationships are revealed.

If you would like to cite this post:

Michael Hait, CG, “The most important thing you can ever prove,”Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 18 December 2012 ( : 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.]

5 thoughts on “The most important thing you can ever prove

  1. I’ve recently come across a particularly egregious example of “same name, different place, different time”. William Eaton, born Bedfordshire circa 1806, died Australia 1878 has been misidentified with William Eaton, born Bedfordshire 1777, died there 1857. This mythology is now widespread amongst those related to the Australian William, bacause they have not checked the evidence of censuses, baptism and – especially – burial records. As the great Anthony Camp used to say when he was Director of the Society of Genealogists, “Kill them off!”.

    Your points about how to establish identity are well made. In my professional work I was able to establish the parentage of an emigrant from Gloucestershire to Canada by working in the Canadian records rather than the English ones. As is so often the case, a group of relatives had emigrated together and their lives were heavily intertwined in the Canadian records. By investigating all those relationships – neighbours in censuses, witnesses at weddings etc – and looking at records created long after the emigrant in question was dead, I was able to establish that a man whose parentage was a matter of record was his brother. In a similar way to your case study, there was no direct evidence of the emigrant’s identity in England but plenty of indirect evidence in Canada.

  2. Michael, this is an excellent post! There probably isn’t a researcher out there that has not run across the above scenarios. A good genealogist will make every effort to prove the evidence either right or wrong – but a poor newbie make not have the experience to differentiate.

    Good job!

  3. City directories are a wonderful source for urban ancestors and one’s efforts to prove identities, and one that is both underutilized and incorrectly utilized by many. They are somewhat tedious like tax records in that they most often came out every year, and one has to extract a long run of entries, possibly for a couple generations.

    Besides residential and occupational evidence that can be correlated with other sources, they like tax records often point to the death of the husband when a widow appears, show how occupations were frequently passed father to son, and how extended families took care of each other by orphaned cousins living with their aunts and uncles in their early adult years.

    And the residential information can be used not just to disambiguate same named individuals, but also allow one to more efficiently judge the nearest likely church they attended to search for baptismal, marriage and death records. In later years, by my experience the late 1880s, directories often started to have reverse sections listing all the inhabitants on a street block, which sometimes uncovers allied families that children married into.

    Urban ancestors, especially immigrants, are often difficult to trace when they did not own property or generate court records, and when their names were often transcribed erroneously by clerks/scribes who did not understand their native languages. City directories often fill that void *if* one searches each and every year for all likely spelling variants, and despite the fact that urban renters were not nearly as likely to be living immediately adjacent to relatives as in rural areas.

    Unfortunately, despite by now there having been quite a number of articles and sections of books written on tax records and city directories, almost always prefixed by “overlooked” or “underutilized”, they still continue to be overlooked and underutilized. For me they have been key to establishing and confirming urban identities in the mid to late 1800s (along with sacramental records for Catholic/Lutheran ancestors).

  4. Pingback: A Sunday Walk Around the Blogs | Digging in the Roots

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