Where Is Your Proof?

by Susan Jackman | Sep 27, 2011

So you have all the evidence, but now you need to organize your findings in a way so that readers can understand how you came to a logical conclusion.

Proof is an interesting concept. In a court of law when there is no direct evidence to prove a case, the evidence surrounding the event--the circumstantial evidence--can be used. So it is with proving relationships. At some point there are so many coincidences pointing to a potential ancestor that the relationship is considered proven. But what is that point and how do we document it?


The Case Of Mistaken Identity

Usually a case of mistaken identity is based on a failure to follow a few basic but critical protocols when engaged in the research process. Facts that prove a relationship are outlined very well by the Board for Certification of Genealogists. Years ago they created a proof standard that all genealogists should use.


The Genealogical Proof Standard consists of five elements:

1. A reasonably exhaustive search
2. Complete and accurate source citations
3. Analysis and correlation of the collected information
4. Resolution of any conflicting evidence
5. A soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion

All five elements are necessary to establish proof--and the end result should be a credible conclusion based on a wide variety of high quality documented sources that minimize the probability that undiscovered evidence will overturn a too-hasty conclusion. If there is any evidence that discredits the soundness of the conclusion it should be added to the summary so that the reader can take it under consideration. Complete sources should be used so that the reader can duplicate the research process if necessary. The conclusion should show how the evidence was used.

A proof summary outline would look something like this:

Title: Date: Compiler: Project Definition: Recapitulation of Previous Research: Proof Argument: Analysis of Findings: Alternative Possibilities: Future Research: Conclusion:

A report about your ancestor with all of the elements listed here would leave no room for doubt. We define the relationship we wish to prove and show what information has already been found. We argue our case and show our thought processes as we analyze our findings based on the evidence. We include any other alternative possibilities if they exist. If applicable, we let the reader know what we plan to do with this new information and how it will affect our research plans. At the end, we draw a strong conclusion.

Now, why on earth would the average genealogist feel the need to learn this skill? Well, let me ask you this: have you ever come across a pedigree with dates and places that don't jive? Do you have a fellow researcher in your family who insists on a certain fact that seems a bit far off? There seems to be an influx of undocumented online pedigrees hitting the internet. The only thing we can do is make sure the pedigrees we are responsible for have been proven. Learning to write a proof summary that is short, concise, and leaves no room for doubt can clear up a host of errors in family records and can help even the oldest and most stubborn of cousins come onboard with the truth.


For Example

Some years ago I had trouble proving to some of my distant cousins that information about our family had been mistakenly attributed to an unrelated family of the same surname. They figured since this information was in print--in a lovely and large hard-bound well-known book--that I was wrong and the book was right. Hundreds of online trees had my ancestor's information attached to their ancestor's tree. But how was I to do it? How could I show them?

I wrote the following proof summary to help readers understand my findings:

Proof Summary--Origin of Jacob Burket of St. Clair, Bedford, Pennsylvania

Date: 14 November 2006

Compiler: Susan H. Jackman

Subject: Jacob Burket circa 1750, son of Israel Burket of Somerset County, Pennsylvania

Project Definition: Prove that the Jacob Burket of St. Clair, Bedford County Pennsylvania whose estate is probated in that county is not the son of Johan Dederick Burket of Philadelphia Pennsylvania but is the son of Israel Burket of Somerset County, Pennsylvania.

Background: There are multiple families of the Burket surname in Bedford County Pennsylvania which has caused confusion because the families are often found in the same township and with the same given name. Most Burket researchers are unaware that there are two contemporary Jacob Burkets in Bedford County in the early 19th century. One married a Barbara Fisher and is the son of John Dedrick Burket of Philadelphia and the other married a Catherine and is the son of Israel Burket of Somerset County.

Proof Argument: The estate records of Jacob Burket in Bedford County, Pennsylvania probated 3 February 1834 belong to Jacob, son of Israel Burket of Somerset County, Pennsylvania. They do not belong to Jacob Burket son of John Dedrick Burket, although this fact was falsely published in the book Burket/Burkett/Burkhardt Family: Tales & Trails, 1649-1990 by Nina Ellis.

Analysis of Findings:

1781--A Jacob Burket was listed on the tax records in Bedford Township, Bedford County Pennsylvania. In 1795 St. Clair Township was created from Bedford Township and Jacob is taxed in St. Clair from this point on until his death in 1834.

1807--Another Jacob Burket moves into the county and is taxed in Greenfield Township. Our Jacob is also still in the county and is taxed as a farmer in St. Clair Township. They both continue to appear on tax records in their respective townships.

1810-- Jacob Burket is enumerated on the census in St. Clair Township, Bedford, Pennsylvania. A Jacob Burket is also enumerated on the census in Greenfield Township, Bedford, Pennsylvania.

1815--A deed appears in the land records for Somerset County naming Jacob Burket, of St. Clair Township, Bedford County, Pennsylvania, as an heir and the administrator to his father Israel's estate.

The following was extracted from a transcription of the 1815 deed:

This indenture made this twenty eighth day of August in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and fifteen between Jacob Burket of St. Clair Township in the County of Bedford and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Yeoman and Catherine his wife of the one part, and Jacob Glessner of Stoney Creek Township in the County of Somerset and Commonwealth aforesaid Esquire of the other part. Whereas the Commonwealth aforesaid by patent...did grant and confirm unto Israel Burket and to his heirs and assigns a certain tract of land...

...upon petition of Jacob Burket, second son of the said Israel Burket, deceased...and heir at law intestate....

1834--Administration of the Estate of Jacob Burket of St. Clair Township This document confirms that the record in question belonged to the Jacob Burket who lived in St. Clair Township.

...Jacob Burket Junior, administrator of all the goods and chattels of Jacob Burket Senior, late, of St. Clair Township, deceased....

Conclusion: The 1807+ tax lists and the 1810 census of Bedford County, Pennsylvania show that there were clearly two contemporary Jacob Burkets in Bedford County, Pennsylvania. There is no evidence in the Bedford County deeds showing that the Greenfield Township Jacob ever sold his land or that he ever lived in St. Clair Township. The 1815 deed in Somerset County positively identifies Jacob Burket of St. Clair Township in the County of Bedford as the second son and heir of Israel Burket of Somerset County. The probating of the estate of Jacob Burket of St. Clair Township belongs to the son of Israel Burket of Somerset County.


So What Was Missing?

How did the authors of this book go wrong?

  • A reasonably exhaustive search Had my fellow researchers looked at more than just the probate records they would have realized there were two Jacob Burkets in the same area at the same time. Sometimes we get over-zealous in our attempt to assign records to our ancestors.
  • Analysis and correlation of the collected information and resolution of any conflicting evidence. The mistaken Jacob Burket was always taxed and enumerated on the census in Greenfield Township. So why would he suddenly have a legal document showing his residence in St. Clair? This conflicting information should have raised a red flag.
  • A soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion A possible piece of pre-conceived evidence considered by the authors is that Jacob in Greenfield had a son Jacob Junior and the estate in question was administered by a son, Jacob Junior. What they didn't know was that Jacob in St. Clair also had a son named Jacob Junior. A hasty conclusion was drawn.

The undiscovered evidence in this case--that if found, would have eliminated the possibility of a too hasty conclusion--was the existence of more than one Jacob Burket. This information was found in the tax records, in the 1810 federal census and in the deed in Somerset County that tied our Jacob in St. Clair Township to Israel Burket of Somerset County.


The Proof Is In The Summary

The art of organizing your findings into a coherent report for family and fellow historians is a polishing act that can make all the difference when it comes to correcting conflicting or poorly documented information. It is certainly the only way to correct a case of mistaken identity--and is a skill every genealogist should have.


Sign up for a free trial account and begin tracing your family history today.

Start 7-Day Free Trial »