Top 10 genealogy resources

I have been away a while—I know, I know—but I just couldn’t resist the latest blogging theme bouncing around. Top 10 lists always seem to bring me out of my little hole.

Judy G. Russell, CG, CGL, posted her legal-centric list at “Top 10 genealogy websites” on her award-winning blog The Legal Genealogist. The theme was started by James Tanner’s post “My Top Ten Genealogy Programs for Now” at his blog Genealogy’s Star. Several other bloggers have also followed suit (and Judy names a few, so I will not repeat the list here).

My list will be a little different. I will not focus exclusively on resources or websites, but instead on foundational works.

  1. The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010). If you write, which I assume that you do, this guide is absolutely necessary. CMOS covers grammar, punctuation, style, and citations, among numerous other topics related to writing and publishing. This also happens to be the style guide adopted by most humanities publishers, including all of the major genealogical journals. There is also an accompanying website available by subscription that allows full-text searching and offers additional assistance.
  2. Wayne C. Booth, et al., The Craft of Research, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008). This guide is intended for university students researching for classes. Genealogy is a type of research, first and foremost. Many genealogical errors would be avoided if the researcher had a solid foundation in how to conduct research in general. This guide is one of the industry-standard introductions to basic research methodology.
  3. Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, 50th anniversary ed. (Nashville, Tenn.:, 2014). Nearly everyone that reads this blog should know that I am a dedicated evangelist for standards-based genealogical research. This book offers the only comprehensive compilation of the standards that have evolved in the field over the past century.
  4. Thomas W. Jones, PhD, CG, CGL, FASG, Mastering Genealogical Proof (Arlington, Va.: National Genealogical Society, 2013). This workbook offers most thorough exploration of genealogical standards of proof, written by one of the undisputed leaders in the field. The lessons are comprehensive and each chapter offers hands-on exercises utilizing two complex-evidence case studies also written by the author.
  5. ArchiveGrid ( As the URL reveals, this website is an offshoot of WorldCat. It includes, however, primarily manuscript collections held by over 1000 archival repositories, making the search much more focused. The site is easy to search for a surname, location, or topic, and returns descriptions and links to the finding aids for the relevant collections. In a recent project, for example, I was able to locate more than a half-dozen relevant collections in the same number of separate universities, historical societies, and libraries. Never neglect the oft-ignored possibility that your ancestor’s personal papers have been collected somewhere!
  6. Google. James Tanner included Google, but I am going to offer a slightly more specific view of its tools:
    • Web Search ( No description likely necessary here, the most important function of Google is its search engine, so prevalent that “googling” something has become a verb unto itself. You can also limit the format of results using Image Search or Video Search, among other options.
    • Alerts ( Google Alerts will email you anytime a new link is located for your keywords. This is a great way to monitor surnames of interest.
    • Books ( Google Books has digitized millions of books in whole or in part, most of which allow full-text search and many of which can be downloaded as a PDF and other digital formats.
    • Scholar ( Google Scholar searches scholarly and academic resources such as journals and dissertations, and provides links to content available online. This is a great way to learn about recent research related to the history and culture of your ancestral places, religion, ethnicity, etc.
    • Maps ( and Earth ( Because who doesn’t want to know where events happened, how close one location is to another, etc.? Google Earth is especially fun once you learn to overlay historic maps, plats, etc.
    • Translate ( Though there are some real problems with automated direct translation between many languages, this tool will still be helpful in many cases in getting a general sense of the meaning of a document written in a language that you can’t read.
    • And there are many others that I won’t get into, like Gmail and Drive. Great for general productivity alone or with a group of researchers.
  7. Internet Archive ( and Hathi Trust ( See above under Google Books, these two sites offer millions of digitized historic books. Internet Archive includes hundreds of reels of NARA microfilm publications, digitized in partnership with the Allen County Public Library! Though they are not indexed, they also have not been edited in any way. This provides the opportunity to view census records, etc., in the context of the original microfilm that has been digitized by other sites. Internet Archive also hosts the “Wayback Machine,” the most comprehensive archive of past websites (which is great for finding online information that somehow disappeared).
  8. Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL, FASG, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, 3rd ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2015). I’m sure that you didn’t think I would forget the book of which I spent two posts discussing the merits a few years ago. Read them here and here. Also take the time to visit the companion website, which offers some very useful forums on documentation and evidence analysis.
  9. Anthony Weston, A Rulebook for Arguments, 4th ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 2009). Reaching a defensible conclusion using conflicting direct, indirect, and/or negative evidence, is often a matter of logic. This short, general guide to the art of formulating a logical argument could almost serve as a guide to genealogical proof arguments. It looks at form, substance, and common fallacies, among other subjects.
  10. The Internet. This tenth spot is tough. So many websites offer online digitized record images that it is impossible to list them all. Obviously, Ancestry ( and FamilySearch ( lead the pack, but other sites include national and international archives, state archives, local public libraries and historical societies, university libraries, etc. Basically, the Internet has completely revolutionized the way that genealogical research is conducted in the twenty-first century. I’m certain that I am not the only researcher who misses the disproportionate “microfilm muscle” (*sarcasm*), but the ability to research with a simple point-and-click deserves a place on every list. Of course, not all material has been digitized, but the Internet also offers access to repository catalogs for access to additional microfilmed and original paper records. Frankly, it’s a bit difficult to imagine how we managed to survive back in the early 1990s, before the Internet was so prevalent. We did it, but I don’t even want to think about those crazy Dark Ages.

What do you think? Do these resources make your list? What shows up on your Top 10?

Upcoming online course: “Working with Sources and Information”

I would like to announce that I will be teaching the following online workshop next month:

Working with Sources and Information

4 June–11 June 2016

Sources are the foundation of every genealogical conclusion. The reliability of any conclusion depends entirely on the ability to evaluate the quality of each source and the information it asserts. Genealogists assess the actual meaning of a source and its information in its historical, cultural, and legal contexts. This process leads to greater success in solving complex genealogical problems.

This hands-on workshop will focus on the disciplined reading and evaluation of sources. Prior to each day of the course, students will be provided with a selection of records from around the world on which to exercise their analytical skills. These source selections will then be discussed in detail during the second session of each day.

Students who register for the Plus option will receive additional documents with which to practice the lessons. Those who submit their written source analyses will receive individual feedback from the instructor based on Genealogy Standards (Nashville, Tenn.:, 2014). The separate Plus session will focus on source citations.

Course Schedule (all times U. S. Eastern)

4 June 2016

  • 11:00am: Principles of Source and Information Analysis
  • 1:00pm: Hands-on Review of Document Selection

11 June 2016

  • 11:00am: Principles of Evidence Correlation
  • 1:00pm: Hands-on Review of Document Selection: Focus on Correlation

Plus Session, 8 June 2016: “A Simple Model for Citing Any Source”

Visit for more information and to register. I hope to see some of you there!

News from the Board for Certification of Genealogists


17 October 2014


Genealogists seeking board certification will have a clearer idea of portfolio requirements following the October 12 meeting of the trustees of the Board for Certification of Genealogists in Salt Lake City. The Board also welcomed a new executive committee and two new members. Several trustees volunteered for a newly enlarged marketing committee. Trustee Judy G. Russell, J.D., CG, CGL, made a generous donation to fund a full year of BCG’s new free public instructional webinars.

To emphasize the fact that not all who apply for certification take clients, the fifth required item in an application portfolio will now be called “Research Report Prepared for Another” rather than “Research Report Prepared for a Client.” The item’s requirements remain the same: research and report on a genealogical problem authorized by someone else that does not involve the applicant’s family, showing “analysis of the problem, in-depth and skillful use of a range of sources, and recommendations for further work based on your findings.”

At the end of Sunday’s trustee meeting the presidential gavel passed from Elissa Scalise Powell, CG, CGL, to Jeanne Larzalere Bloom, CG. In her final report as president, Powell commented on many changes, including the publication of revised standards and rubrics, BCG’s increased social-media presence, the new webinar series, as well as the 50th anniversary celebrations. Bloom responded, “On behalf of the associates and the trustees of BCG, I would like to thank Elissa for her capable leadership as BCG’s president these past two years.”

Other members of the new executive committee are Stefani Evans, CG, (vice-president), Michael S. Ramage, J.D., CG (treasurer), Dawne Slater-Putt, CG (secretary), and Russell (member at large). As past president, Powell will also serve on the executive committee in an advisory capacity. Newly re-elected trustees are David McDonald, CG, Evans, and Bloom, joined by newcomers Nancy A. Peters, CG, and Harold Henderson, CG. Retiring trustees Laura A. DeGrazia, CG, and Thomas W. Jones Ph.D, CG, CGL, were thanked for their long terms of service and for the significant advancements of BCG that occurred under their leadership. DeGrazia served 2005–2014, and as president 2008–2010. Jones served 1997–2007, 2011–2014, and as president 1999–2002.

Sunday’s meeting was preceded by a day of BCG-sponsored lectures offering problem-solving tools from associates Powell, Russell, Evans, and Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL, hosted by the Family History Library. The lectures were streamed into two additional rooms when the main meeting room filled.

For questions or more information contact: Nicki Birch, CG,

Free webinar tomorrow – “What is a ‘Reasonably Exhaustive Search’?”

There is still time to register for my webinar “What is a ‘Reasonably Exhaustive Search’?” Legacy Family Tree will be hosting this webinar, tomorrow (12 September 2012) at 2pm EDT.

The first requirement of the Genealogical Proof Standard is that we “complete a reasonably exhaustive search for all relevant records” related to our research objective. This presentation discusses what a “reasonably exhaustive search” entals, why this is necessary, and how to conduct a search. A case study explores how failing to identify all relevant records can lead to missing information and forming inaccurate conclusions about your ancestors’ lives.

To register visit You will receive a confirmation email after you complete the registration process.

Attendance at the webinar will be restricted to the first 1000 to sign in. There are already many more than this number registered, so it is important to sign in at least thirty (30) minutes early. If you are unable to attend the live webinar, the recording will be available to watch free on the Legacy Family Tree website for ten (10) days.

A more permanent copy of the lecture will be available for purchase on DVD directly from Legacy Family Tree here. Feel free to also pre-order the DVD  whether or not you can attend.

I look forward to seeing you there!

For more articles about conducting a “reasonably exhaustive search,” read:

You can also read any of the articles included in the category “Genealogical Proof Standard” on the right, for details about other very important research and analysis skills.

Those Genealogy Police are at it again!

Yesterday I received a horrible email from the Genealogy Police(tm).

Can you believe that they told me that I should use death certificates in my research? I don’t want to use death certificates! They are so gloomy. Genealogy is supposed to be fun!

And they said that court records would be a good source of information about my ancestors. If my ancestor was a criminal or was sued, well, I just don’t want to know about that.

The way that I do genealogy is perfectly fine. It makes for a great hobby! I can trace my family tree all the way back to Moses through Charlemagne, King Henry VIII, and I’m third cousins with Brad Pitt. (That explains my good looks.)

I don’t cite my sources for any of this because the “genealogy police” actually think that a citation should provide detail about my sources to an extent that would allow me or someone else to actually know what we had looked at. If I can’t do it their way, then I just won’t do it at all!

Besides, I’m just doing this for my kids anyway. I’m not a professional, and all I care about are the stories.

Now that I got all of that out of the way…

Obviously all of the above was written with tongue firmly in cheek. And I am sure that I have ticked a few people off. I apologize to all who are offended. But I felt that this was the only way to make my point.

Over the past two or three years I have read several blog posts that–believe it or not–are very similar to what I wrote above. These posts of course do not complain about someone telling them to use death certificates or court records (or any other record group). They complain that someone emailed them about a lack of documentation or faulty analysis or some other “standards” issue. Why is it that what I wrote above seems so over-the-top ridiculous, but these other posts get dozens of “likes” on Facebook and “attaboy” and “attagirl” comments? There is no difference.

When genealogists write about the need for standards in genealogy—yes, even for non-professionals—they are usually doing so to try to help.

Meeting standards does not suck the fun out of genealogy.

Meeting standards in your research—even if no one other than yourself ever knows it—increases your own personal confidence in the accuracy of your research. Whether you are in it as a professional or in it just for yourself (or your kids), you should care about the accuracy of your research. Do you want to research your family tree or someone else’s? Do you want to honor your ancestors or someone else’s?

Meeting standards in your research makes you a better researcher. The standards were written by professionals with decades of experience—those whose research skills have been repeatedly demonstrated and found to excel. Becoming a better researcher, in my opinion, makes genealogy even more fun. It opens doors. It breaks down brick walls. Becoming a better researcher allows you to identify with confidence far more ancestors than otherwise. These “new” ancestors all have their own lives and stories. If you love the stories (and who doesn’t), then more ancestors = more fun!

So who are the Genealogy Police anyway?

I’ve never seen them. I have been “doing genealogy” online since I was twenty years old. You can still find some of those old posts I wrote in 1997 or 1998 online. They don’t meet standards. I didn’t know there were standards. They don’t cite sources (though I sure wish they did so I could find some of that information now).

Despite all this, I have never been visited by the Genealogy Police. Never once have I been shot down by some genealogist with a pompous attitude telling me I was doing it wrong.

I have, on the other hand, received messages over the years from genealogists who helped me become the researcher I am today. They taught me about examining sources. They taught me about indirect evidence. They even taught me about citing sources.

But this may come down to perception. I wanted to learn. So I did not take criticism as negative, I took it constructively. I recognized my weaknesses and my mistakes, and I made the attempt to correct them.

I won’t say that there may not be some overzealous genealogists out there who attack people (always privately) about a comma or a semicolon or a faulty record or a disproven connection. They may exist. Luckily they have never emailed me.

So the next time the Genealogy Police visit you, please ask yourself: is this genealogist really attacking me, or are they trying to help?

The WikiTree Honor Code

My thanks to Dr. Bill Smith for bringing this to my attention by writing about the Code.[1]

I will admit that I rarely use collaborative genealogy sites. Nothing against the sites themselves–it just does  not often fit into my research plan. First, I have little time to research my own family and do not use online family trees for clients unless I am completely out of other options. Second, the online trees just don’t generally meet the standards of proof that I try to meet.

One of the leading collaborative sites in the market today–WikiTree–has recently instituted an “Honor Code.” This Honor Code is the first attempt of which I am aware that tries to bring research standards to online family trees. This nine-point Code addresses ethical concerns such as courtesy and privacy, and legal concerns such as copyright. In terms of research standards, it includes the following important point:

VIII. We cite sources. Without sources we can’t objectively resolve conflicting information.[2]

This one point in the WikiTree Honor Code actually addresses two of the five points of the Genealogical Proof Standard: that we cite our sources (obviously) and that we reconcile conflicting evidence caused by conflicting information.

I would like to commend the WikiTree team for making this first step in supporting genealogy research standards. I would also like to invite other collaborative genealogy sites to follow their lead to help make online genealogies more reliable in the future. This will do much to raise the overall quality of online genealogies.


[1] Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith, “I support the WikiTree Wiki Genealogist Honor Code,” Springfield Genealogy Examiner, posted 29 June 2012 ( : accessed 1 July 2012).

[2] “Wiki Genealogist Honor Code,” WikiTree ( : accessed 1 July 2012).

Correlating information from multiple records

When trying to correlate information from multiple records to confirm the identity of the subject of the records, you will often find that the information does not agree completely. In these cases, the only way to identify the subjects as those you are researching may be to correlate all of the information contained in the two records, as a whole.

Consider the following case, for example:

In the 1880 U. S. federal census, the household of William Waters in Baltimore, Maryland, contains the following inhabitants:

  • Wm. Waters, black, age 40 years
  • Cornelia [Waters], black, age 39 years, wife
  • Caroline [Waters], black, age 20 years, daughter
  • Charles [Waters], black, age 16 years, son
  • Augustus [Waters], black, age 14 years, son
  • Nellie [Waters], black, age 12 years, daughter
  • Louis [Waters], black, age 10 years, son
  • Bessie [Waters], black, age 8 years, daughter
  • Frank [Waters], black, age 6 years, son
  • Virginia [Waters], black, age 4 years, daughter
  • Carrie [Waters], black, age 3 years, daughter
  • Adele [Waters], black, age 1 year, daughter
  • Augustus Ridgely, black, age 16 years, nephew
  • Gertrude [Ridgely], black, age 8 years, niece
  • Catharine Williams, black, age 34 years, boarder[1]

Compare this household with the following household in 1870:

  • Otho Hagan, white, age 35 years
  • Cornelia [Hagan], white, age 27 years
  • Caroline [Hagan], white, age 11 years
  • Charley [Hagan], white, age 5 years
  • Augustus [Hagan], white, age 4 years
  • Mary [Hagan], white, age 2 years
  • Catherine Williams, black, age 23 years[2]

The only similarity between these two records is the presence of a Catherine/Catharine Williams in both households. Yet these are the same family. How do we know? By analysis and correlation of the information.

Look at the two records side-by-side:

  • Cornelia Hagan, white, age 27 years (1870) = Cornelia Waters, black, age 39 years (1880)
  • Caroline Hagan, white, age 11 years (1870) = Caroline Waters, black, age 20 years (1880)
  • Charles Hagan, white, age 5 years (1870) = Charles Waters, black, age 16 years (1880)
  • Augustus Hagan, white, age 4 years (1870) = Augustus Waters, black, age 14 years (1880)

Is this enough to prove the identity of this family? Not by itself. But we must continue to search for other records.

The most revealing is in the Baltimore city marriage records:

  • On 12 December 1878, “Wm. Waters,” age 39 years, colored, widower, married “Cornelia Hagan,” age 36 years, colored, widow, in Baltimore.[3]

These three records clearly confirm the identities of these families. Often, it is only through the correlation of multiple records that the identities of the subjects of records can be known with certainty.

If you are interested in throwing more trouble into the mix, take a look at the following record, from the 1860 U. S. Census:

  • Caroline Ridgeley, mulatto, age 51 years
  • Augustus [Ridgeley], mulatto, age 29 years
  • Cornelius [Ridgeley], mulatto, age 28 years
  • Arthur Harkins, mulatto, age 25 years
  • Caroline [Harkins], mulatto, age 5 months
  • Cornelius [Harkins], mulatto, age 22 years[4]

In this record, “Arthur Harkins” is actually “Otho Hagan” and “Cornelius Harkins” is his wife “Cornelia Hagan.” Their daughter Caroline, the only one expected to be alive at this point, appears as the infant “Caroline Harkins.”

Caroline Ridgely was Cornelia’s mother. In 1844, Victoire Vincendiere of Frederick County, Maryland, manumitted her 39-year-old slave Caroline and her 5-year-old daughter Cornelia.[5] In Victoire’s 1854 will she refers to her slave “coloured slave Augustus (son of Carolina whom I have heretofore manumitted).” She bequeaths Augustus to her nephew Enoch Louis Lowe, who was Governor of the state of Maryland from 1851 to 1854.[6] On 16 June 1857 E. Louis Lowe manumitted “mulatto man Slave Augustus (commonly Known as Augustus Ridgely) son of Carolina a free mulatto Woman he being the Same who was bequeathed to me in and by the last will and testament of Victoire Vincendiere.”[7]

This series of records provides the surname “Ridgely” to the family of the slave Caroline, and provides relationships between Caroline, Augustus, and Cornelia. If each record were considered in isolation, the history of this family could not be determined. However, by correlating information from all of the records, the astute researcher now has a history of the early life of Cornelia (Ridgely) Hagan Waters.


[1] 1880 U. S. Census, Baltimore City, Maryland, population schedule, Part of 2nd Precinct, 13th Ward, enumeration district 114, page 19, dwelling 164, family 218, Wm Waters household; digital images, ( : accessed Jul 2011); citing NARA microfilm publication T9, roll 501, FHL microfilm no. 1,254,501.

[2] 1870 U. S. Census, Baltimore City, Maryland, population schedule, Tenth Ward, Baltimore City post office, page 205, dwelling 1077, family 2160, Otho Hagan household; digital images, ( : accessed May 2011); citing NARA microfilm publication M593, roll 575, FHL microfilm no. 552,074.

[3] Baltimore City Court of Common Pleas, Marriage Record IFR 6, ff. 552–553, Waters to Hagan (1878); MSA C214-6, MdHR 20,221-6; Maryland State Archives, Annapolis.

[4] 1860 U. S. Census, Baltimore City, Maryland, population schedule, 12th Ward, Baltimore City post office, page 27, dwelling 151, family 190, Caroline Ridgeley household; digital images, ( : accessed Jun 2011); citing NARA microfilm publication M653, roll 463.

[5] Frederick County Court, Land Record HS 21, ff. 523–524, Vincendiere to Caroline (1844); digital images, Maryland State Archives, MDLandRec.NET ( : accessed Jun 2011).

[6] Frederick County Register of Wills, Original Wills, Victoire Vincendiere (1854); MSA C900-24, MdHR 11,532-964; Maryland State Archives, Annapolis.

[7] Frederick County, Maryland, Land Record ES 10, f. 411, Lowe to Ridgely (1857); digital images, Maryland State Archives, MDLandRec.NET ( : accessed Jun 2011).

If you would like to cite this post: Michael Hait, “Correlating information from multiple records,” 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.]

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.

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!