Archive for the ‘Genealogical Proof Standard’ Category

Who is this? Confirming the identity of a record’s subject

One of the most important—and most overlooked—forms of analysis that genealogists must perform is confirming the identity of the subject of the record.

Much has been stated about the difficulty of researching common names like Johnson, Smith, Jones, etc. Researchers must be careful, though, not to assume that the unusual name of their ancestor was unique to them, however. Some surnames seem unique to us but were common in that time and place. Even a unique combination of given name and surname could be common within a certain generation, and not as unique as it might seem to us. So you must be careful to confirm the identity of the subject of every record you locate.

In some cases, you will not be able to tell by looking at the record by itself. This is what the Genealogical Proof Standard means when it requires “correlation” of information. We must compare the information in one record to the information in other records.

Federal census records comprise the most popular record group in use by genealogists. For an ancestor who lived 80 years, he may appear in seven, possibly eight, separate census records. Finding these records is important, but it is also important to recognize and confirm the identity of the families in each household.

Census records allow one of the most useful techniques for confirming identity: using relationships with other people. I discussed this in an article originally published in the “National African American Genealogy” column on Examiner.comon 11 August 2009, Using ‘clusters’ to track your ancestors through multiple census years (part one).”

But how do you confirm identity in other records?

Most records contain more than just our ancestors’ names. Records may contain ages, occupations, street addresses or neighboring farm owners, names of their fathers (as in “Henry son of Aaron” or simply “John of Thomas”). You can often compare these other details from record to record in order to confirm identity.

The more records (and information) you obtain, the easier it becomes to confirm identity, specifically because of these details.

Take the following death certificate, for example:

[You can click on the image to see a larger image.]

There are a few details on this death certificate that will be useful for identification of this John A. Meagher in other records: name (of course), age, and address of residence. The name of the cemetery also suggests additional records for research.

Using this information we can easily find this John A. Meagher in the 1900 U. S. Census, where his household also contains his wife Mary C., and several sons and daughters.[1] Taking this further, we can find him again in the 1880 U. S. Census, where his household contains the same wife and children.[2] By comparing and correlating the information relating to John’s age (and corresponding implicit date of birth) among these three records with his street address as reported in 1900, the names of his wife and children between the two census records, etc., we are able to confirm that all three records relate to the same man.

We can take this research further by comparing other details–like the street address in 1880, the date of marriage in 1900, the date of death, etc.–with the details provided by still more records. Marriage records, probate records, land records, pre-1880 federal census records, etc., could all be consulted to gain additional information about John A. Meagher’s family.

Each of these records may also provide more details that would lead to more records, each of which may contain more details, etc. The process of confirming identity requires attention to detail, which in turn allows us to create full (and accurate!) profiles of our ancestors’ lives.

Are you taking the time to confirm the identity of the subject of every record you consult?


[photo] Baltimore City Health Department, Bureau of Vital Statistics, death certificate no. B-37632 (1901), John A. Meagher; Maryland State Archives microfilm no. CR 48116.

[1] 1900 U. S. Census, Baltimore City, Maryland, population schedule, Ward 17, enumeration district (ED) 222, sheet 1B, dwelling 12, family 15, John Meagher household; digital images, ( : accessed Mar 2011); citing NARA microfilm publication T623, roll 615.

[2] 1880 U. S. Census, Baltimore City, Maryland, population schedule, 1st precinct, 12th ward, enumeration district (ED) 104, page 21, dwelling 147, family 175, John Meagher household; digital images, ( : accessed Mar 2011); citing NARA microfilm publication T9, roll 501, FHL microfilm no. 1,254,501.

If you would like to cite this post: Michael Hait, “Who is this? Confirming the identity of a record’s subject,” Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 30 Nov 2011 ( : 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.]


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.

Why is source citation part of the Genealogical Proof Standard?

I have discussed source citations so many times in this blog, from several different perspectives. In the course of addressing the Genealogical Proof Standard, I am once again drawn to discuss the subject of source citation.

The second condition of the Genealogical Proof Standard, as published by the Board for the Certification of Genealogists in their standards manual, reads,

We collect and include in our compilation a complete, accurate citation to the source or sources of each item of information we use.[1]

Hopefully I have convinced you in earlier posts why source citation is important. But why is this part of a proof standard? What does source citation have to do with the quality of our research conclusions?

I have briefly touched on this issue in other posts. You can read my previous posts about source citation by clicking on the category “Source Citations” in the sidebar on the right. But here I would like to address this question more directly, and provide examples.

Suppose a key document in your proof argument is a last will and testament. In your argument, you discuss information from this will.

The most important part of conducting high-quality research and producing high-quality conclusions is using high-quality records. You might remember the phrase “Garbage In, Garbage Out” that we all learned when we started using computers. This is true with genealogy as well.

That will you are using may exist in multiple forms:

  • There is the original will written and signed by the testator.
  • There is a recorded copy of the will transcribed by the court clerk into the will book.
  • There may be a microfilmed copy of the will book created by the state archives.
  • There may be an independently microfilmed copy of the will book created by the Utah Genealogical Association available at the Family History Library.
  • There may be a published transcription of the will.
  • There may be a published abstract of the will.
  • There may be a reference to the will with a partial abstract in a compiled genealogy.

So when you refer to the facts of the will, which version did you view? The citation would provide this information. In this way, you can assess the strengths and weaknesses of your sources, and determine the quality of any research based on those sources.

But this is not the only reason that source citation is part of the Proof Standard. To understand completely, look at the Genealogical Proof Standard as a whole:

  • Conduct a reasonably exhaustive search in reliable sources for all information that is or may be pertinent;
  • Collect and include in our compilation a complete, accurate citation to the source or sources of each item of information;
  • Analyze and correlate the collected information to assess its quality as evidence;
  • Resolve any conflicts caused by items of evidence that contradict each other;
  • Arrive at a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.[2]

In other words, we search for information, we cite the sources, we analyze and correlate the information, we resolve conflicting evidence, and we arrive at a conclusion.

But we could not possibly go directly from looking for records to analyzing the information.

When do we actually assess the quality of the source we are using? It could be considered part of the first step, where we are instructed to search in “reliable sources.” But this does not tell us how to determine what constitutes a “reliable source.” The first step deals with the search for records, the third and fourth steps deal with analyzing information. Only the second step deals with analysis of the record itself, as opposed to the information held within that record.

Think of the Genealogical Proof Standard as if it were written this way:

  • We conduct a reasonably exhaustive search in reliable sources for all information that is or may be pertinent.
  • We assess the provenance and quality of the records we are using by collecting and including in our compilation a complete, accurate citation to the source or sources of each item of information.
  • We analyze and correlate the collected information to assess its quality as evidence.
  • We resolve any conflicts caused by items of evidence that contradict each other.
  • We arrive at a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.

In my post “Five things you have to know about every record,” I discuss the importance of a record’s provenance.

When the testator died, his will was deposited with the Register of Wills (or the appropriate probate court depending on where you are researching). If you went to the Register of Wills and looked at that original will, there is a pretty good chance that it had not been moved much from the time it was originally deposited.

If, however, you looked at the original will at the state archives, this means that at some point before you saw it, that will was boxed up and transferred to a separate institution. Once it arrived, it was likely accessioned into the new repository under the provisions of the archival system already in use at that institution. This process may include separating records that had been previously filed together or combining records that had been previously filed separately. In some cases no changes to organization were made. In other cases, no consistent organizational system seems to exist from record group to record group or county to county. It is important to address this as part of your analysis of a record.

Of course, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time we view a record. If we use an original will from County A held by the state archives on one project, then a few weeks later use another original will from County A held by the same state archives, we can generally assume that the analysis we did the first time we used the records remains the same. This may not hold true if we are looking at an original will from County B or County C, or any other record group from County A, but when using the same collection, it probably does. Once we learn about a collection or a record group, we can apply that knowledge to future research.

This analysis then appears as part of your citation. When creating a citation, you make use of the organizational system of the records you are using. This forms the basis, to a certain extent, of the format of the citation.


[1] Board for Certification of Genealogists, The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual (Orem, Utah: Ancestry Publishing, 2000), page 1.

[2] The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual, pages 1-2.

If you would like to cite this post:

Michael Hait, CG, “Why is the source citation part of the Genealogical Proof Standard?,” Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 23 Nov 2011 ( : 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.]

How to conduct a “reasonably exhaustive search” for relevant records

The Genealogical Proof Standard is a set of guidelines by which researchers can judge the thoroughness of their research and analysis, and the reliability of their conclusions. Over the next week or so, I would like to discuss the Standard as well as how to apply it to your research.

The first condition of the Genealogical Proof Standard is that we have conducted a reasonably exhaustive search for all information that is or may be pertinent to the question for which you are seeking an answer.

In order to meet this condition a researcher must first know what records exist for the time period and location in which you are researching. The following tips will help you discover this information when you begin researching in a new area for the first time:

1. Read research guides. Most states have numerous research guides available. It may be necessary to consult more than one, as each may have its own individual strengths and weaknesses. General research guides include the following wikis now available online:

You will want to be careful of some research guides written and published by some “genealogists.” A few authors have endeavored to write and publish “research guides” for many locations across the country. In most cases these research guides contain only general information about each state, but no specific information with enough detail to effectively research in those locations.

Instead, check to see if any research guides have been written and published by reputable researchers in the location itself. The National Genealogical Society’s Research in the States series of research guides is a very good start. Each of these guides has been written by a researcher recognized in the subject state.

Many historical and genealogical societies have published research guides. In most cases these research guides have been written by researchers with many years of experience in the specific location. These guides can be extremely detailed and informative.

2. Explore repository holdings catalogs. Many repositories have put catalogs of their holdings online, and these can be searched for information relevant to our ancestors. I have compiled a directory of the online holdings catalogs for the state archives of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, where available. A few states have not yet put this information online.

Many repositories also have online descriptions or research guides to using various records collections. See, for example, the “Reference and Research” section of the Maryland State Archives website and the “Using the Collections” section of the Library of Virginia website. Each of these sites contains numerous descriptive pamphlets relating to specific record groups and the record history of the states. You can find similar information on other state archives websites. For links to the websites of all state archives, read “Using the online catalogs of state archives to locate records of interest.”

One must not forget to check the catalog of the Family History Library on FamilySearch. In many areas, representatives of the FHL visited multiple repositories in each given location, microfilming diverse record groups. Don’t only search for county records, though. Also search for state and town records.

You will also want to identify other repositories of interest. I found the record that finally broke down one of my long-time brickwalls, for a family that lived in Connecticut and New York, at the Primitive Baptist Library in Carthage, Illinois.

3. Identify newspapers that were published. The Library of Congress has compiled a “U.S. Newspaper Directory, 1690-Present.” This directory can be searched by date and place of publication, with the place able to be specified by state, county, or city. Newspapers can offer many opportunities for research, including obituaries and death notices for those who died prior to state vital registration, and notices of estate administration and court proceedings in burned counties.

4. Search online finding aids. Many researchers neglect the private papers and other manuscript collections that may be held in historical society or university libraries. However these collections can hold some of the most important records, including many created by the subjects of our research. These may include family bibles, plantation account books, personal letters and photographs, etc. The key is to search collections relevant to the locations you are researching. You may locate information about your ancestor in a collection of the personal papers of the local town doctor or Justice of the Peace, for example.

There are numerous ways to find these records. You can go directly to the repository that you think may hold collections of interest. Finding aids for many of these special collections are available online at the repository websites. The finding aids may contain extremely detailed information, or may contain only a short description.

You will often find a relevant collection in an unexpected place. A recent project I researched involved a family that lived in Georgia, but family papers were found in Duke University in North Carolina. Duke University happens to have amassed a large collection of antebellum southern plantation records. You will find that historians resident at other universities may have compiled similar collections of historic material based on their own research interests. Collections which may involve families in other states.

Try these ways to locate manuscript collections:

  • The National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections has been produced by the Library of Congress since 1959, originally in annual printed volumes. The Library has now ceased publication of the printed volumes, but contributes entries on manuscript collections to OCLC WorldCat. You can search WorldCat for surnames and locations, and it will also return the nearest library that holds books of interest.
  • Records of Ante-bellum Southern Plantations is a microfilm collection created by UPA (now owned by LexisNexis) containing reproductions of various family papers collections from throughout the Southern United States. A guide to the collection is online. Visit the LexisNexis website for similar microfilmed publications available. While these microfilms are expensive, many university libraries have them.
  • Read published historical articles in your area of interest. Pay attention to the citations. Many historians access unpublished manuscripts. In other words, someone else may have already found what you are looking for. Use JSTOR or SAGE or Project MUSE (or any other similar journal-hosting services) to search for articles written about your location. Google Scholar also includes entries from these databases. Don’t limit yourself to your specific family. In some cases, these historical journal articles may provide context that reveals useful information about the world in which your family lived. In other cases, you may find that one of the records they used holds information on your ancestor! You can search most of these databases for free and read abstracts of relevant articles, but individual articles can run in the $20-$30 each range. However, many university libraries offer free access to the databases (in some cases remote access online).

5. Find out what churches were active in the area. Two good sources for identifying churches are the county or state historical society and contemporary city directories. In the 1930s the Works Progress Administration also conducted a Historical Church Survey. This survey contained questionaires about historic churches, usually including a profile of the church’s history, and an inventory of the records of the church then extant. These surveys are often difficult to find, but many are held by state archives, historical societies, and university libraries. More information can be found in “Soul of a People: the WPA’s Federal Writers Project.”

It is helpful to know what religion your ancestors followed. But do not limit yourself to those churches. Sometimes ancestors converted. A funny thing that I discovered is that every man in my direct male line, including myself, converted to a different religion than the one under which they were born–for seven straight generations! Also keep in mind that in rural areas where no church existed for certain denominations our ancestors may have attended a separate church out of necessity. In some minds, a Christian was a Christian, first and foremost, regardless of denomination! In other cases, such as in the colonial period, there may have been an established state religion. I have seen the births and marriages of Catholics in colonial Maryland recorded in the records of the established Protestant Episcopal (Anglican) Church.

All of these tips will help you to become more familiar with the area in which you are researching. You must not only know what records are available, but what information these records contain, why they were created, and where they are held. (See also “Five things you have to know about every record.”) As stated above, one must know what records exist before one can claim to have completed an exhaustive search for all relevant information.

Related articles:

The Genealogical Proof Standard: an introduction

About two and a half years ago, in my National African American Genealogy Examiner column, I wrote a post called, “What is the Genealogical Proof Standard?

The GPS recognizes, as you will discover in your own research, that genealogy research often leaves unanswered, and unfortunately unanswerable, questions. Not every fact can be proven with a simple statement on a document. However, through the use of the GPS, and indeed through practice, you can be sure that your conclusions are as close as possible to the truth.[1]

The Genealogical Proof Standard is a set of guidelines by which researchers can judge the thoroughness of their research and analysis, and the reliability of their conclusions.

My understanding of the Genealogical Proof Standard has grown further in the past few years. Over the next week or so, I would like to discuss the Standard as well as how to apply it to your research. Each post (and occasionally more than one) will discuss one or more of the conditions of the Genealogical Proof Standard:

1. Conduct a “reasonably exhaustive search” for all information that is or may be pertinent to the question for which you are seeking an answer.

2. Completely and accurately cite every source of information discovered in this search.

3. Analyze and correlate the collected information to assess its quality as evidence.

4. Resolve any conflicts caused by contradictory items of evidence or information contrary to your conclusion.

5. Arrive at a “soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.”

I hope you enjoy the coming posts.


[1] Michael Hait, “What is the Genealogical Proof Standard?,” in National African American Genealogy Examiner, posted 15 May 2009 ( : accessed 20 Nov 2011).

For more information, see

Board for the Certification of Genealogists, The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual (Orem, Utah: Ancestry Publishing, 2000).

Brenda Dougall Merriman, Genealogical Standards of Evidence: A Guide for Family Historians (Toronto, Canada: Ontario Genealogical Society/Dundurn Press, 2010).

Christine Rose, CG, Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case, Third Revised Edition (San Jose, Calif. : CR Publications, 2009).

Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, Quicksheet: Genealogical Problem Analysis- A Strategic Plan- Evidence! Style (Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2010).

Do I have a citation obsession?

I discuss source citations in this blog a lot. I know. I just can’t help it.

But academics in other fields are not above obsessing over citations either.

Kurt Schick, a writing teacher at James Madison University, posted “Citation Obsession? Get Over It!” in the Commentary section of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Mr. Schick agrees with many of my readers, I am sure:

What a colossal waste. Citation style remains the most arbitrary, formulaic, and prescriptive element of academic writing taught in American high schools and colleges. Now a sacred academic shibboleth, citation persists despite the incredibly high cost-benefit ratio of trying to teach students something they (and we should also) recognize as relatively useless to them as developing writers.[1]

Mr. Schick decries the time and energy that universities spend teaching how to cite in specific formats: MLA, APA, Chicago/Turabian, etc. In his opinion citation formats are nearly indistinguishable and relatively simplistic:

Why, then, could we not simply ask students to include a list of references with the essential information? Why couldn’t we wait to infect them with citation fever until they are ready to publish (and then hand them the appropriate style guide, which is typically no more difficult to follow than instructions for programming your DVR)?

In Mr. Schick’s opinion, citation format is unimportant until publication. I have heard this same argument used in the genealogy field on numerous occasions. (Of course, Mr. Schick refers mostly to published sources, whereas we genealogists should be using mostly original record sources.)

Instead of teaching citations, universities and colleges should instead “reinvest time wasted on formatting to teach more-important skills like selecting credible sources, recognizing bias or faulty arguments, paraphrasing and summarizing effectively, and attributing sourced information persuasively and responsibly.” These are all very important skills, I agree. However, in genealogy, why separate the two processes?

To me an accurate source citation is more than just how we know “where we got the information.” It’s more than how a reader can reproduce your research or assess the quality of your sources.

The internal process of a researcher creating an accurate source citation develops certain necessary evalution skills. In order to fully cite a record source–whether a published item, a government record, or an unpublished manuscript–you must understand certain things about the record. Who created it? When and where was it created? Where is it currently stored? How does this record fit into the larger collection of records of which it is a part?

These questions are among the five things you have to know about every record. In other words, taking the time to create a full and accurate citation itself inspires a deeper understanding of that source. I believe that this th reasons that the Genealogical Proof Standard contains the condition about citing your sources separate from the other four conditions, stated after searching for relevant sources and before analysing and correlating the information. Creating the citation allows the researcher to evaluate the source itself, rather than solely focusing on the information that source contains.

This explains my seeming obsession with citations.


[1] Kurt Schick, “Citation Obsession? Get Over It!,” in Commentary, Chronicle of Higher Education, posted 30 October 2011 ( : accessed 13 Nov 2011).

For another response, see also Carol Fisher Saller, “‘Citation Obsession’? Dream On,” in Lingua Franca blog, posted 3 September 2011 ( : accessed 13 Nov 2011).

Writing an effective report of your research, to a client or yourself

When you research your family (or a client’s family, if you are a professional) how do you write up your research? Or do you write it up at all?

There are a many different formats that one can use in this process. But, regardless of format, your report should have the same parts to be most effective.

The first part is to define the scope of the report. Why are you researching? What are you looking for? If you have not defined a specific goal or a specific research question, how can you expect to find the answer–or know it when you do?

The next part is to identify and detail the relevant information you have already located. This is your starting point. You will want to note every piece of information or potential clue that you will follow in the course of this research.

The third part of your report should be the actual results of your research. This should be fully documented with full source citations of every record consulted. Including all negative searches. If you looked in Book A, Record Group B, and Microfilm X, then you need to note all of these sources with the information, if any, they contained. Be careful to also document exactly what you searched for. If you looked for specific names in an index, for example, record these names. You may have to go back to the same sources in the future to look for other names.

In this section you should also fully analyze and evaluate each source, correlating the information with the information found in other sources, noting and reconciling any conflicting evidence, etc. If you are able to reach any conclusions, you should write out a source-cited proof summary or proof argument.

It is also useful, at the end of your report, to create a list of Sources Used. I will admit, I do not always include a separate source list in every report, because all sources are cited independently in footnotes within the body of the research results. But it can be helpful to include a separate list that collects all of these sources into a single list that can be more quickly consulted.

The final part of a research report should be to make Suggestions for Further Research. If you have constructed a conclusion that meets the Genealogical Proof Standard, you may skip this part. However, if there are sources still left unsearched, or clues left unfollowed, or conflicts left unreconciled, this would be the section where you will note the research that still needs to be done to conclusively prove your case.

By following this practice, even genealogists by hobby rather than by trade can research more efficiently and more effectively. You will no longer search the same sources for the same names time after time (with the same results). You will no longer bounce around with no true purpose and no true conclusions. And best of all, in many cases, simple organization in this manner may be enough to allow you to identify the information you already have, and break through brick walls that didn’t really exist after all!

%d bloggers like this: