Sometimes I think people make genealogical proof entirely too difficult, too academic, and too “out of reach.”

It’s not as difficult as some think it is. It’s not as difficult as some would have us to believe. There’s no secret to genealogical proof. And it certainly is not the same as mathematical proof, although there are parallels.

I have quite a few statements in my genealogical files for which I do not really have genealogical proof as is it currently defined. Most people have statements like that in their files. It’s not the end of the world. I have the death date of my great-grandfather in my genealogical database and I have used his death certificate, tombstone, and obituary as records that provide that date of death. I’ve tied the date of his death to those sources that provide direct statements about his date of death. Technically I don’t have “proof.” I have three documents that provide the exact same date of death.

Proof is not a record. Proof is not a bunch of records shoved in your face while someone wags their finger and says “here.” Proof is the analysis of all the records that address a specific problem. I’ve not analyzed the records in question. I’ve simply linked them to the date they provide.

Is it the end of the genealogical world that I haven’t written up a “proof” for my great-grandfather’s date of death?

No it’s not and it is mentioned twice for emphasis.

The three 1948 era records are all consistent. There’s no reason to doubt them. I also personally do not see any reason to write up a proof argument for my great-grandfather’s 1948 date of death. When I print out his date of death on a report, there are three sources cited that provide that same exact date. Is it possible that he actually died on a different date in a different place? Of course it is. Anything is possible and I don’t have first hand knowledge because, despite how old my own children think I am, I was not alive in 1948. But the chance that my great-grandfather’s date of death is significantly different from the date listed on these three records is infinitesimally small. A 75-year old Midwestern farmer who owned forty heavily mortgaged acres does not fake his own death in 1948 and take off for parts unknown.  I’ve tied his date of death to three sources and those sources are consistent to the exact date. When I print out his date of death on my charts or reports those sources are attached.

His date of birth is more problematic. There is no birth certificate and his 1900 census entry, Social Security Administration file, and World War I Draft Registration Card provide consistent dates that differ by a year from the date of birth provided on his death certificate and obituary. The month is also different but the specific number of the day is the same. This is a case where I will need to write up a proof argument.

If I think I can reach a conclusion.

It’s is perfectly allowable to not reach a conclusion. No one will kick you out of the genealogy club because, after looking at all the records you could find, you were unable to reach a conclusion Sometimes that happens. Simply indicate which records provide what date and move on.

Sometimes the precise date really is not as crucial as we might think. All of great-grandfather’s records provide the same place of birth and the same parents. And the dates are relatively consistent. One year of variation is not overly significant and its not like there are numerous Charles Neills being born in Hancock County, Illinois, in the mid-1870s that I have to sort out. There is only one.

I may never be able to reconcile the inconsistency. In reality, I’m tempted to think the death certificate and obituary have the wrong date of birth. The other records are all consistent with each other and likely came from information provided at different times. The death certificate and obituary information came after his death and not from my great-grandfather directly. It’s possible that these two records agree because they had the same informant.

My “proof” argument needs to mention all the records that I have used and why I think certain ones are correct (the previous paragraph goes a long way towards doing that). The death certificate and obituary (even though I think they are wrong) need to be mentioned, along with the reason why I think they are wrong. If I fail to mention them, someone reading my argument may wonder why those records were not mentioned. Leaving them out makes it look as if I conducted incomplete research.

And that makes my conclusion suspect. After all, if I left out the obituary and death certificate for a man who died in 1948 in Illinois, what else might I have left out?

Genealogical proof is not one document. Genealogical proof is not one source. Genealogical proof is not about how many documents you have or how many genealogical documents you do not have. Documents that we obtain in the attempt to answer a genealogical question contain statements that may be relevant to our problem. The statements that are relevant are said to be evidence. The proof is the analysis of that evidence you have obtained from the sources that you have used. Reasoning and logic should weave the evidence in such a way that makes the conclusion clear.  If there are reasonable ways to view the records other than the viewpoint you have chosen to make, you need to address why that other viewpoint is not the correct analysis.

The reasons why most genealogical conclusions fail:

  • searchers use a limited and inadequate number of sources
  • searchers incompletely and inadequately analyze documents in light of other records in the same series
  • searchers fail to consider the conditions under which records were created
  • searchers fail to consider how probable it is the likely informant knew the information they purport to know
  • searchers only consider their preconceived solution as the answer
  • searchers fail to logically justify their conclusions

There are other minor reasons why conclusions can fail, but an awareness of the above concepts usually reduces the chance of errors from falling between the cracks. An awareness that one needs to research every available record at all jurisdictional levels and that one could be wrong in their initial conclusion can go a long way towards minimizing errors in judgement or conclusions.


And…genealogical proof is always subject to new records being discovered.





6 Responses

    • You are totally correct in what you are saying! I recently finished my ancestor’s (Spanish soldier) application for DAR acceptance – they do not accept Spanish soldiers who were not in actual combat – today, is not the National Guard considered as serving our Country, weather in combat or not – my comparison – when one’s Country goes to war, are we not all involved…genealogy is not all n “black and white” as some see it but some see information through blindfolds…

  1. If I could “like” this 1000 times. I thought I was falling short in the areas of source citations and genealogical proof. This encourages me to not be so intimidated and just do the best I can with what I have. Thanks, Michael.

    • Thanks, Tara. I’m not saying citations and proof are not important–quite the opposite is true. But I do think that sometimes people think it is a little more difficult than it is.

  2. Is there a list somewhere you can find what is considered “proof” for nearly every society/group? Do you have to dig up bones to “prove” they lived and died? WHICH documents are the “sacred ones” that are accepted hands down?

    • The problem is that there is no document that is “sacred” and always accepted without question. Any document can contain incorrect information, but some are more likely to be correct than others. That’s why it’s usually advised to find more than one document that might provide information on the same event–to reduce the chance that that one document obtained first was incorrect.
      Most lineage societies operate on some level of the Genealogical Proof Standard.

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