Evaluate What You've Found
Just as with a puzzle, each piece, or fact, that you uncover about your ancestors needs to be evaluated to determine its appropriate placement in the family tree. What is the record telling you? Is the information complete? How convincing is it? Does it conflict with other information that you've found?
What Does the Document Say?
Reading old records is something you'll have to do often as you trace your family tree back in time. Handwriting styles were definitely different, and the writers weren't always very particular about punctuation and penmanship. Words may have had different meanings, and even dates weren't always as self-explanatory as you might think. An important step in evaluating the information you've found is to make sure that you've interpreted it correctly.
Even modern handwriting can be difficult for genealogists to read because of poor penmanship. As you go back in time, the difficulties only increase as you encounter unusual scripts and other handwriting oddities along with archaic spellings and usage. You don't have to be an expert in paleography to accurately read old documents, but some practice and experience is a must. Online tutorials can be extremely helpful in this regard. On
Dates in genealogy documents can cause confusion as well. A date in a marriage index may be the date that the marriage license was issued or the banns were announced, not the actual date of marriage. Along the same line, people often confuse the dates for births and baptisms, and deaths and burials. Be sure to pair up the date with the correct event.
Once you go back far enough in your family tree, you may encounter different calendar systems, including the Julian calendar, French Republican calendar, various religious calendars, and the unusual Quaker system of dating. You may also find archaic usage relating to dates that you may not recognize. The term instant, for example, refers to this month, as in “the eighth instant.” The corresponding term ultimo refers to the previous month. Examples of other archaic date usage you may encounter include Tuesday last, referring to the most recent Tuesday, and Thursday next, meaning the next Thursday to occur. Dates were sometimes recorded based on their relationship to another event, as well. A common example of this practice is regnal years, where the year is recorded by the number of years since the accession of the reigning monarch (e.g., 2008 is the fifty-fifth year of Elizabeth II's reign).
In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII ordered that ten days be dropped from the Julian calendar that was in effect at the time, and that the beginning of the year change from March 25 to January 1. This new system was the Gregorian calendar still in use today. Because of this calendar change, you may encounter events recorded with a double date, such as 20 March 1718/1719.
Sometimes genealogy seems to have a language all its own. As you dig into older records you'll come across unfamiliar terms and puzzling abbreviations. It is important that you look up the correct interpretation of such terms as you encounter them so that you don't miss any important clues.
Latin terms are the most commonly encountered in genealogical documents, from the legal language of wills and deeds to the Latin records of the Roman Catholic church. The abbreviation et ux., for example, is one that you'll commonly encounter, from the Latin words et uxor, meaning “and spouse.” Most of these words can be easily looked up online; check out the extensive Latin genealogical word list at FamilySearch (
Prove Your Argument
Proof in genealogy is very rarely an absolute. The facts that you uncover about your family tree may be used as evidence to support your conclusions, but you can really only call it proof if you and others find it convincing. A census record that lists your great-grandma living on her own as a widow certainly provides evidence that her husband is deceased. It isn't proof, however. The census enumerator may have made a mistake in entering the information, or the woman may have stated that she was a widow for any number of personal reasons. The evidence is there, but it isn't convincing enough to be considered proof when evaluated on its own.
The Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG) offers quality examples of genealogies, proof arguments, and research reports prepared by board-certified genealogists on its Sample Work Products page (
So what constitutes proof? Genealogists define proof as a combination of the evidence and reasoning that convincingly supports a conclusion. Evidence alone doesn't constitute proof. A single document can, on occasion, offer enough evidence to present a reasonable conclusion. Yet, the “proof” exists not only in the document itself, but also in the fact that other reasonable sources were searched and no conflicting evidence was found.
You'll often encounter situations in your research where several elements of direct evidence conflict with each other. On the other hand, there will also be circumstances where no individual piece of evidence explicitly provides the information you seek. In these cases, the “proof” comes from analyzing each piece of evidence and creating a logical argument as to why the information, when taken together, carries enough weight to support your conclusion. This is a proof argument, a detailed discussion of the problem, the evidence for and/or against your conclusion, and the resolution of the problem. To assist genealogists in determining whether their evidence and reasoning is sufficient to support their conclusions, the Board for Certification of Genealogists has defined a series of five elements that need to be met before a conclusion can be considered satisfactorily credible or “proven.” Known collectively as the “Genealogical Proof Standard,” the five criteria are:
Reasonably exhaustive search for a wide range of high-quality sources
Complete and accurate citation of sources
Analysis and correlation of the collected information
Resolution of any conflicting evidence
Soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion
A genealogical conclusion that meets this standard of proof can be considered convincing or “proved.” This still doesn't imply that your conclusion is true or absolute, just that it is the most logical given the presented evidence.
I'm just doing this for my family. Why all the fuss over sources and evidence?
What difference does it make whether Great-Grandma died in Georgia or Alabama? Or where the birth date for Grandpa came from? Like anything else, family history is really only worth doing if you're interested in doing it well. The best way to honor your ancestors is to represent them correctly and take pride in your work.
You Can't Find Them! Now What?
In the process of researching your family history, you'll likely encounter research problems that just don't seem to have a solution. Perhaps your ancestor has a common name, making it impossible to sort him out from all the other men by that name that appear in the records. Maybe your ancestors pulled a disappearing act between the 1880 and 1900 U.S. census. Or maybe you have followed your ancestors back to the point at which they “crossed the pond,” only to have their trail sink into the Atlantic. What's the next step?
Retrace your steps. Review the information you have already collected. You've probably learned many new things since you first started tracing your family tree, and the information may reveal new facts when you look at it with fresh eyes. There may be names that had no significance when you first encountered them, or you may be able to better read the old handwriting now that you've had some practice. New sources also come online every day, so take time to retrace some of your Internet searches and revisit your favorite database sites to see what's new.
Check your facts. Are you looking for the right name? In the right place? For the right person? Many brick walls are built from incorrect assumptions. If you have used a lot of compiled databases or published sources to construct your family tree, go back and check them against original documents. If your ancestors lived near a county line, check the neighboring county for records. Investigate all potential name variations for your ancestor as well — not just various spellings of the surname, but given-name alternatives including initials, middle names, and nicknames.
Branch out sideways. The cluster genealogy technique introduced back in Chapter 3 really comes in handy when your research hits a dead end. This is especially true in cases where ancestors seem to have disappeared. Because family, neighbors, and friends often moved together, you may find a clue to their former home or their new location by tracing the movements of the people with whom your ancestors had a connection. When you can't find an ancestor in a particular census, for example, conduct a search for their neighbors from the previous or succeeding census. This technique also works well for passenger lists.
Don't do all of your research online. For every genealogical record and source available online, there are hundreds more tucked away in archives, libraries, courthouses, and other offline repositories. The Internet is very valuable as a research tool, especially for the survey phase, but you can't use it as your only resource in a thorough family history search. Use online catalogs and other resources discussed throughout this book to become familiar with other potential sources of information about your family located offline, and then visit or write to the repository or hire a researcher to do it for you.
If you're serious about genealogy, Professional Genealogy: A Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers, and Librarians, edited by Elizabeth Shown Mills, is a must-have for your genealogy bookshelf. Two dozen leading professional genealogists contributed their expertise to this book. The chapters titled “Research Procedures,” “Evidence Analysis,” and “Proof Arguments and Case Studies” are especially helpful for their discussion of research methods with real-life examples.
One of the best ways to learn successful genealogical research methods is by reading and studying published case studies. These real-life examples are written by genealogists to describe a particular research process, and the method by which they arrived at their conclusions. Many explore particularly knotty or confusing research situations, so they can be full of creative searching ideas. Numerous genealogical case studies and articles online even specifically offer advice on getting past genealogical brick walls. Michael John Neill has written two articles that may help inspire your creativity, titled “Brick Walls from A to Z” (
Other excellent examples include “Building a Case When No Record ‘Proves’ a Point” (