Did I Prove It? Ten Questions To Ask Along the Way

by Harold Henderson | Jul 23, 2013

Proof is social. And I don't mean that we have to post it on Facebook or compress it into a few keystrokes on Twitter.

Proving something in genealogy doesn't mean that we're really really, really sure. It means that we can convince our fellow genealogists and relatives that it is true. We are a bit like a trial attorney summing up for the jury -- except that in this case it's more like convincing a panel of our own peers, and no one will get locked up as a result.

Sometimes, There's Nothing To Prove

Of course, lots of cases never come to trial. Proof in genealogy may be so straightforward that we don't even think to use the word. Your mom and Aunt Tillie, who can't even agree on color combinations, agree on great-grandmother's birth date; her death record and a midwife's affidavit in a military pension file confirm it; and nothing contradicts it. Case closed.

Well, it's as closed as it can get. Genealogical proof is different from the law and very different from geometry. New evidence could force us to reopen any closed case. (There's nothing against "double jeopardy" in genealogy!) And in Euclidean geometry, proof stays proved. The angles of a triangle in a plane will always add up to 180 degrees, and there will never be any new evidence against that. But genealogical proof could always change -- because who knows what's in Aunt Tillie's attic?

When Things Don't Fit

Proof becomes a bigger deal the more disagreement or confusion there is. Sometimes it's too many pieces of evidence contradicting each other. Other times it's not enough evidence about anything.

gavel-small.jpgIn addition to being able to convince folks that we're right, there is an official standard in genealogy that we can measure our proofs against. It has five parts: do thorough research, cite sources, analyze and correlate the evidence, resolve contradictions (if any), and write it all down clearly.

But that is determined after the fact, by our peers or editors, much as every pro football touchdown is reviewed on instant replay once the play is over. As researchers, we would like to know while we're working whether we are headed for a touchdown or just another bruising tackle for a loss.

In both cases there are no guarantees, but here are ten questions we can ask ourselves along the way to see whether we are at least running in the right direction! I'm keeping them short although each one could be an article in itself.

Take Time; Your Ancestors Will Remain Dead

1. Do we start with a single specific question about a known unique person?
"I want to know all about great-grandma" may be our motivation, but it's not a good way to start research. "Who were the parents of Edith Flint Thrall who died 10 November 1898 in Illinois?" is a better question. We can always ask another one later on if we need to.

2. Are we writing down information needed to cite and evaluate each source BEFORE looking inside or opening the file?
Sometimes we need to add some information afterwards too, as we come to understand the source better. Knowing the technical terms for kinds of sources, information, and evidence will help.

3. When we do look inside, do we take time to read the introductory material?
The introduction can contain a wealth of information about what is - and what isn't - included. This is also a good time get familiar with how what we're looking at works. Pick a few names and see whether they appear in the index. That will give an idea how things should work.

4. Are we making a note whenever we have a good idea?
When you have that brilliant idea for the next step -- "Gotta check the county history!" - write it down before it gets lost in the shuffle.

Stop and Think

5. Do we step back from time to time?
I have become so absorbed in copying a tax list accurately that I forgot to make sure that the copy contained enough information so that it would make sense to me next week!

6. Are we being absolutely fair?
Did we give one document short shrift because it implied something we didn't want to hear? (Not good.) Do we try to think of contradictions in the evidence as our ancestors trying to tell us something? (Better.) Don't EVER ignore them (the contradictions, that is). How to resolve those contradictions is an adventure in itself, different every time, so that's a long story for another day.

Double-Check That Shopping List of Sources!

7. Do we have a checklist of commonly used records?
Here's mine: cemetery, census, church, court (including naturalizations), land, military, newspaper, probate, and vital. Compiled genealogies, online and off, belong here as well, even though we need to examine them critically to see what kind of care was taken in compiling them.

8. Have we sought out any unusual sources for the locality where we're researching?
There usually are some. If your county of choice has any kind of archives department, devour that web site. (Don't assume small counties will not: I found gold in Licking County, Ohio.) It helps to be in a place that has town or county historians or genealogists, or a library that cares. Don't overlook nearby colleges and universities. [Note: Gena Ortega's Expert Series article "Family History Research at University Libraries" has great tips for researching there.]

Finish the Job - Because No One Else Will

9. Do we write up the facts and stories - either as we go along or ASAP afterwards?
It's easier to do while the research is fresh, and having done it makes later review and editing simpler as well.

10. Have we sent out our stories or articles to the editors of local or state genealogy newsletters or magazines?
Every genealogy editor is anxious for material. Many will print whatever we send in. That practice may encourage newcomers, but in the long run it's less helpful than editors who make changes, comments, and suggestions. A good sympathetic editor (or tough-minded friend) can do wonders to help our ideas come through more clearly.

When We're Gone

Remember, answering "yes" to all or most of these questions will have us running in the right direction. But it is no guarantee that we will reach the goal. The final test is whether our written conclusion convinces our friends and relatives and fellow genealogists - whether it measures up to the Genealogical Proof Standard.

Writing (questions 9 and 10) is not an optional extra. By writing, citing sources, and publishing the story we have effectively preserved our genealogy work after we're gone.

Very few of us have a friend or relative so devoted that they will pore over our scrawled notes -- or obsolete database formats! -- and turn them into the family chronicle we dream of. It's up to us. Let's prepare the food as well as we can, and put it out there where everyone can reach it, now and forever.

Additional Resources:

Amy Johnson Crow, "Compiling What You Find So It Makes Sense Later," Archives.com livestream video.

Thomas W. Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof. Arlington, Virginia: National Genealogical Society, 2013.

Sunny McClellan Morton, "Publish Your Family History Without Being Overwhelmed."


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