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Beginning Genealogy Lesson #35

Genealogical Due Diligence

From: RJDELOTTO@aol.com 
DearMYRTLE, 
I just read parts of your "genealogy for beginners" and was struck by a problem (described) in Lesson 9: what do you do when records, or any data, disagree?

This happens often in my profession, competitive intelligence, and has a LOT of solutions. "The simplest methodology is lifted from the US military, so you already paid for it. With it, you focus on the source and the credibility of the information, leading to a simple alphanumeric designator, such as "A1" or "F6".

Reliability is based on the known performance of the source of the information, and is rated alphabetically:
a- Completely Reliable
b- Usually Reliable
c- Fairly reliable
d- Not Usually Reliable
e- Unreliable
f- Reliability Unknown

Credibility focuses on the information itself: Is it believable as a thing in itself?
1- Confirmed by Other Sources
2- Probably True
3- Possibly True
4- Doubtful
5- Improbable
6- Credibility unknown

I am just beginning to apply this to my record searches in genealogy... kicking myself for not remembering it earlier.

Hope this helps!
Rick De Lotto

DearRICK, 

Thank-you for sharing your evaluation system.  It's so important that I am immediately replying, and sending a copy of this to print in an upcoming article. Proper evaluation of evidence is certainly a challenge. 

In one Maryland land record in the late 1600s, my ancestor Christopher Gist's name was spelled three different ways, and of course, to top it all off he signed it a fourth way. That's a not-so-uncommon example of a single document disagreeing with itself when it comes to the name of the individual in question. As one gathers more documents on Christopher Gist, one could employ the "confirmed by other sources" notation which is perhaps my favorite item on your two lists. 

The Beginning Genealogy Lesson 9 was originally published in February 1997. The closing lines about conflicting information were: "Be careful to note all instances of dates and their sources in the notes option of your genealogy management program. This leaves a big audit trail. If new evidence comes along, it must be compared with existing information to form a preponderance of evidence."

Since that time, the National Genealogical Society, referring to a July 17, 1997 news bulletin, announced that "the Board for Certification of Genealogists which tests and certifies researchers in a number of genealogical specialties, will no longer use the term preponderance of evidence heretofore widely used to describe how genealogists analyze and weigh evidence." ("Announcement", NGS Quarterly, Volume 85, Number 3 p. 227.)

...The term preponderance of evidence was originally borrowed by genealogists from the legal system, where it describes the standard of proof necessary in civil trials. However, Gale Williams Bamman, CG, CGL and current president of the board said "Genealogy requires a level of proof for preponderance-of-the-evidence decisions that is higher than the level applied by the judicial system."

"Adding to the confusion," Gale Williams Bamman said, "has been the use of the term to describe the resolution of complex evidence problems, but without general agreement on procedures to be followed or the degree of complexity the term implies. These factors led to a board review of the evidentiary language and a consensus that the term should be dropped."

Since then, the NGS has endorsed the following more detailed guidelines for genealogical quality assurance:

Members in our two local genealogy societies have resolved to weigh the evidence as well as can be expected, much as they had been doing in the past, "with all due diligence." (Another legal term.)

Due diligence in genealogical research evolves as one progresses in research experience. Certainly we cannot find fault with the due diligence of an enthusiastic beginning researcher. They're simply not aware of the possibilities. However, beginners must step beyond perpetuating family legends which they uncover as they quite logically gather genealogical information from other family members. 

As researchers strive to dig deeper into original documents, their experience and expertise improve. "Genealogical Due Diligence" includes:

  • joining societies to learn strategies & techniques from speakers

  • obtaining a small library of basic how-to reference guides

  • consulting bibliographies of genealogical resources before searching for documents about the ancestor's locality, ethnic group, local customs, records available

  • using primary documents in preference to printed genealogies

  • attending every possible local and regional genealogy seminar to learn more 

In short, its incumbent upon each genealogist to obtain a 'genealogical methods' education, to understand the scope of records available and to facilitate the process of obtaining copies of essential pieces of evidence in order to accurately report details of key players in a family tree.


Rick's evaluation process is certainly a great guide for analyzing documents once they have been located. Think of a common occurrence where an individual may have "gone" by his middle name or a nick name all of his life. Confusion arises when he is listed in one or two other documents by his first name. One would most certainly check to see if the newly discovered individual has a wife and children by the previously known names and if the locality and circumstances fit into a plausible time line. 

Sometimes people out and out lie and we're left to present the evidence as clearly as possible. I know of a researcher whose father point-blank lied, to protect his reputation from his actions in the past. He had written certain things, which later proved to be false. His son uncovered the circumstances, and discovered the truth in his careful questions posed to his repentant father in later life. Unfortunately most researchers don't have the benefit of personal interviews with their more elusive, and long since deceased ancestors. 

A common example of conflicting information is a death record that disagrees with the listing of parents reported on the birth certificate for the individual. In this situation, it's easy to see that the birth record is more likely to be correct, since it was created at the time of the birth. Realize also that the widow or children who provided the information for the death record were severely stressed at the time they reported the names of the deceased's parents. They were not present when the man was born. 

However, a monkey wrench could have been thrown into our theory if the deceased gentleman had been adopted and the birth record was consequently altered. If he learned of the true identity of his birth parents during his lifetime, it's highly likely that this is something that would be quite fresh in his wife's mind. That's at least one reason why her report of parent's name appearing on the death certificate might be more accurate than the birth record. We must all admit this is pretty far fetched.

Testimony is far less reliable from individuals removed by time and distance from an event when compared to eye witnesses. 

Given that truism, consider that in witnessing a car accident on your way to work this morning, you and seven other witnesses will more than likely have eight slightly different stories. It makes for a challenge when it comes to determining the actual truth of the matter, doesn't it!?!

Further Reading:
Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence! Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian. 1997 Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company.

Myrt     :)
DearMYRTLE,
Daily Genealogy Columnist
AOL Keyword: gf, roots or myrtle 
www.DearMYRTLE.com  

To post a message on this topic, go to Myrt's Message Board 

v 1.0 (my980131) Revised July 2000

 

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