Proving The Facts
Understanding Varying Levels of Certainly of Fact:
The variety of sources or proofs which we genealogists and family historians use
is immense. And like any other type of documentation they each have their
advantages and disadvantages. Some are more reliable than others and some are
subject to much individual interpretation.
The most common of these sources are:
Vital Records (birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, deeds, and wills
Personal Documents (such as letters and photographs)
Monuments (such as those remembering veterans and tombstones)
Published Works (the family genealogies and histories that have been published
Compiled Works (those GedCom files you find at Ancestry.com and Rootsweb)
Family Records (such as Bibles, insurance policies, school records, etc...)
Family Tradition (information passed on without proofs)
While some genealogists refer to sources as primary, secondary, and tertiary;
others of us prefer to reference a source according to its own inherent
reliability as fact. Each of these offers different types of information and
each varies in reliability. The reliability of any source is determined by 1)
the closeness of the person providing the information to the subject or location
AND 2) the closeness of the report in relation to the time of the event.
Personal Knowledge is fairly reliable if presented honestly. When I state that I
am a veteran of the Persian Gulf War and that I served in the Kuwait Theatre
from January - May of 1991, that is "probably certain" information. Since I was
present at the time AND I am the subject. If I provide a copy of my military
discharge certificate (DD-214) which corroborates my assertion then the
reliability increases to "almost certain" or even "certain". Were my son to
provide the information without the DD-214 then the reliability reduces to
"possibly certain" since he is removed in both person and place -- he wasn't
there, he got the information second hand.
Personal Interview is only as reliable as the interviewee. In the example above,
I could provide you with the information about my war experience and it is
probably reliable information -- when you relate that information to someone
else it becomes possibly reliable because you are removed in both time and place
entirely, your restatement is subject to error.
Vital Records are generally prepared "at the time" and "by the subject" so they
are, for the most part, almost certainly reliable sources. They are only
reliable to the facts which relate to the time, place and subject though. A
death certificate includes the names of the deceased persons parents -- this
part of the information is removed in both time and place since the person
making the report (unless it is the deceased's parent making the report) is
removed in time and place. The information about the cause of death, place of
death, date of death, etc... is properly placed in time and place. Consider all
documents with these issues in mind -- determine which parts can be deemed
reliable to what degree based on time and place.
Letters and photographs are generally a gold mine. They can contradict certain
other documents which would ordinarily be considered fact. Consider maybe a
letter I had written in the above example of my service in the Persian Gulf War;
it provides a certainly reliable source as to where I was in early 1991 because
of the postmark. That it is addressed to my parents by name and begins "Dear Mom
and Dad" does not though prove that these people are my parents. In my case they
are but, they could be adoptive parents or step-parents and still receive the
same salutation. Using that letter to prove my parents names then is only
Photographs are most useful when they have been identified relative to time
(near when they were taken) by someone close in relation (preferably the
subject). You can't assume that the photo of Uncle Joe in a model-T Ford was
taken in the earliest part of the 20th Century, Uncle Joe may have been a
collector of old cars much later. Clothing, hair styles, surroundings, etc...
can all help to identify a photograph by time. A photo of Uncle Joe in a WWII
Army Air Corps uniform standing next to an aircraft with Capt. Joe Smith painted
under the canopy is a pretty solid genealogical and biographical source.
Some photos and drawings can also help establish ethnicity and/or affluence by
examining the features of those in the photo as well as their clothing and
surroundings. Even with an old photo though -- the melting pot of America has
made many ethnic distinctions fade away completely.
Tombstone transcriptions are some of the easiest to acquire sources out there.
While the death date information found there is almost certainly reliable,
remember that the birth date information was provided by someone far removed in
both time and place to the actual event. The birth information is more likely
possibly certain. In the case of veterans memorials, that the individual named
served in the conflict memorialized is almost certainly reliable since they were
recorded near the time and place of the veterans service.
When using the resources of published works -- remember that the information
contained in them is only as reliable as the source of that information. Many
published works are meticulously sourced -- a few in the past were intentionally
flawed. It is always best to use such works as possibly certain and to then
search for the more reliable source of that data yourself.
Compiled works are similarly only possibly certain for the same reasons. Even
more so with a compiled work since it is so easy for the person making the
compilation to make a mistake, to include unproven data, or to misinterpret data
from a source document. In this group are the many GedComs and family tree web
pages that are finding their way onto the internet these days. I don't imply
that these are inherently bad but only that as a source of information, they are
only possibly certain. Such resources have been a great way to make contact with
others researching the same ancestors and also a great way to finally learn who
has that old family bible.
Family records are especially subject to omission of information. If vital
information was added to the family bible as it occurred then the family bible
is a fantastic source of information. For many of our ancestral problems, it is
the only source of information.
Insurance policies are also a good source of family vital data. School records
are not just fun to read but provide location, parent, and age data. These
documents are subject to omissions and even outright lies in some cases though.
Especially when there is some financial benefit in applying a little creative
record keeping. When reviewing such information -- if all of the writing appears
to have been done by the same person at the same time -- it was probably created
"after the fact" and then is subject to errors of memory and omission of
embarrassing detail. Such a document prepared "after the fact" becomes a source
between a personal interview and family tradition.
Family traditions are important! Far too many genealogists are quick to dismiss
them because they don't fit nicely into the facts. Consider each such family
tradition outside of the facts though and as if it were based at least in part
on fact or need. Consider that it is a fact that I lived in Spain for three
years and attended high school there. If an descendant a couple generations from
now were to consider that he might have a really hard time verifying that as a
fact since my birth certificate says I was born in Maryland and my high school
diploma is from Mount Pleasant North Carolina. I lived in Maryland until I was
three and I attended Mount Pleasant HS less than a year. Remember that the facts
don't always negate the tradition. Consider too the common family traditions of
Dutch, Black Dutch, Black Irish, German, Irish, French, Polish, etc.. descent --
these are rarely if ever recorded in vital records -- there is just no
specificity there. The only way to prove them is to find the immigration record,
and then that is still questionable without the original birth record. It
doesn't make them false any more than my having lived in Spain for three years
and attending high school there makes me Spanish; Even if there is a proved
record that shows that I came to Virginia from Spain in 1978... ;-)
Always remember that your source citation should be what you actually heard or
saw. If Cousin Susan says that Grandpa Jones had a brother named Frank and she
knows this because she has Uncle Frank's obituary; your source is "Cousin Susan
who states that Uncle Frank's obituary says..." and not the obituary itself
unless you too get a copy of that obituary. Remember that a transcription or
extract of the will of Uncle Frank is NOT the same as seeing the original will
or a photocopy. Your source with a transcription is the transcriber and the
transcribed document -- it is only probably certain or possibly certain because
the transcriber could have made a mistake or a misinterpretation.
Any fact that is not absolutely certain is subject to redefinition when another
fact of greater certainty is presented. And, it is possible for two contrasting
facts to both be absolute. A document might reference great grand mother as
Margaret while another references her as Peggy -- If she was known by both names
then they are both her name...