What is “proof” of family history?

I’m going to divert briefly from my research slog through various Rankin families of Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio long enough to address this issue: what constitutes genealogical proof and what does not.

I have a distant cousin (seventh cousins, maybe?) named Roberta Estes. We “met” online via Estes research some twenty years ago.  We finally met in person, spending a week together in Halifax County, VA doing nitty-gritty research among records in the basement of the Halifax courthouse. I knew I had found a kindred spirit when I learned she likes tax and deed records as much as I do.

Roberta writes an excellent blog called “DNA Explained.” A great many of her posts are about DNA “science.” When I have a question about DNA, the first place I go is to her blog and search her Archives.

Roberta’s post today is on a topic that will interest all family history researchers: what is, and what is NOT, genealogical proof. Here is a link to   her post.

What resonated most with me was her list of things that do NOT constitute “proof.” I have copied part of it below, with my comments and modifications in italics (the numbering has changed from her original list since I deleted a few items):

  1. Proof is not an oral history, no matter how much you want to believe it or who said it. Oral history is a good starting point, not an end point.
  2. Proof is notnot, 1000 times NOT someone else’s tree. A tree should be considered a hint, nothing more.
  3. Proof is not a book without corresponding evidence that can be independently corroborated. Being in print does not make it so. People make mistakes and new information surfaces. Unfortunately, there are also genealogical frauds – see, e.g., Gustave Anjou.
  4. Proof is not a man by the name of Jr. [taken to mean] that he is the son of a man by the same name with the suffix of Sr. “Sr.” often means older and “Jr.” means younger, but not necessarily related. In fact, the suffix can change over time for the SAME MAN: a Robert Rankin who initially showed up in Guilford, NC records as “Robert JUNIOR.” became “Robert SENIOR” after Robert the elder (his father) died.
  5. Proof of a father/son relationship is not just two men with the same name in the same location.
  6. Proof is not just a will or other document … without evidence that a person by the same name as the child named in the will is the RIGHT person.

The lawyer in me, retired though she might be, feels compelled to expand on Roberta’s discussion of “proof.” Namely, I want to draw a distinction between “proof” and “evidence,” and the amount of evidence that is needed to produce a certain standard of proof. 

The definition of “evidence” takes up a full page in Black’s Law Dictionary. Fortunately, the essence of the meaning of “evidence” as it relates to genealogical research is pretty easy to distill. Try this on for size: EVIDENCE is anything that is offered to prove the existence or nonexistence of a fact. In genealogy, evidence might be a deed, a will, tax records, church birth and death records, census records, tombstone inscriptions, and so on.

Notice that the word “prove” appears in that definition. Here is what Black’s has to say about that: PROOF is the effect of evidence.

Boiling both definitions down, evidence is what supports a belief that a fact is proved (or disproved).

If you have ever served on a jury, you already know there are different “standards of proof.” In a Texas criminal trial, the standard of proof requires a defendant’s guilt to be established “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In a Texas civil case, the standard of proof is usually “preponderance of the evidence.”

Another standard of proof lying somewhere between those two is “great weight and preponderance of the evidence.” Law students, who like to boil things down to something understandable, may view it like this:

  • Beyond a reasonable doubt: at least 95% of the facts compel a certain conclusion.
  • Great weight and preponderance: about 65-85% of the evidence supports a conclusion.
  • Preponderance of the evidence: a conclusion is more likely than not – it has the weight of 51% of the evidence.

Naturally, there are parallels in family history research, or I wouldn’t be talking about this.

You frequently see the phrase “conclusively proved” in family history articles. This is roughly equivalent to “beyond a reasonable doubt.” For example, my paternal grandmother’s identity – Emma Brodnax Rankin – is conclusively proved by my birth certificate, my father’s birth certificate, his mother’s will naming him as a son, census records naming him as a son, ad infinitum. Not to mention my recollection of all those awful holiday dinners in her grotesquely overheated house in Gibsland, Bienville Parish, Louisiana. A court would call my testimony about those dinners “direct evidence” based on personal knowledge. If I’m a credible witness, THAT case is closed.

When you see the phrase “conclusively proved,” it means there is really no reasonable argument to the contrary. That is how I use the phrase on this blog.

Use of the word “probably” in family history articles seems to equate with “preponderance of the evidence.” Namely, a conclusion is more likely than not.

Similarly, the phrases “most likely” or “almost certainly” are somewhere in between the other two. There may be a reasonable doubt, but the weight of the credible evidence strongly points one way.

We also need to talk about“circumstantial” evidence, because sometimes there is no other proof of a family relationship. That is particularly true in counties where records have been lost and documentary evidence is limited. “Circumstantial evidence” just means facts that lead to a reasonable inference.

For example, the fact that a 65-year old man named Jedediah Rankin is listed in the 1860 census in a household immediately adjacent to 40-year old Jacob Rankin constitutes circumstantial evidence of a relationship. You can reasonably infer some family connection between the two men because such an inference accords with common sense and experience. If Jacob and Jedediah witness each other’s deeds, that would provide additional circumstantial evidence of a family relationship. If Jacob named his eldest son Jedediah, and Jedediah Sr. was security on Jacob’s marriage bond, those facts would also be circumstantial evidence.

Circumstantial evidence can establish a compelling web of family connections which suggest that only one conclusion seems reasonable: Jacob was Jedediah’s son. It is a powerful tool in serious research.

One last red flag about “proof:” beware the passive voice, a grammatical form that frequently signals lack of evidence. Keep an eye out for these phrases, which appear in many compiled family histories: “it is thought that …” or “it is believed that.”  Hmmmmm…. who believes? And what is his or her evidence? Those phrases rightfully justify a jaundiced eye unless the writer provides evidence supporting the “belief.”

Now, back to Roberta’s list of “not proof,” item #2, someone else’s tree. It may be a fact that “many online trees” show Jedediah as Jacob’s father. That is not even evidence of a relationship between those two men. All it might prove is that many online trees are copies of other online family trees.

Finally, Roberta’s item #1, family oral history, is near and dear to my heart right now. Family legends/family oral traditions nearly always reveal important truths. They usually also contain errors. And we’ll begin my next post with what is probably the most well-known and firmly established oral tradition in Rankin family history.

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9 thoughts on “What is “proof” of family history?”

  1. Robin,
    I’ve been in that very Halifax Co. VA courthouse searching for records on my ancestors. I believe the records were in the basement if I recall correctly. I remember the lady assisting me making the comment about Virginians still being mad at those Yankees who burnt so many Southern courthouses! I’m from Tennessee and thought I knew how to speak Southern until I went to Virginia!
    Both your article and that of Roberta Estes are excellent. I would add also that the “Millenium File” is not a legitimate source as implied so often by those using it. In fact, I find much of the data located there totally in error. It is nothing more than other’s family tree data.
    What I can’t get over is the absolute lack of common sense shared among those who create their family trees and post them so proudly and prominently on the Internet. Rarely did men or women begin having children when they were two years old. Rarely did one die several years before writing his will. Rarely did a family include 4 sons by the same first name…at the same time. Rarely did couples begin having babies 10 years before they were married. This sort of careless collection of data is ruining serious genealogical research.
    I try not to use family trees I find on the Internet for anything other than clues. The errors are so great, however, that I find myself spending hours sending messages to people about the data they have posted. Most never respond. A few respond saying they got the data from another tree or someone else, a few become angry and tell me to quit looking at their tree, and a very, very few actually respond with an open mind to learning more about our ancestors. I teeter somewhere between declaring war or dropping genealogy altogether. After 46 years of conducting research, it is difficult to just drop it.

    1. Danny, whatever you do, don’t drop genealogy altogether! Someone in your family, or among the genealogical community, is bound to need and appreciate your research. Like you, I have spent a lot of time and emotional energy arguing with people who believe … whatever they want to believe. I finally decided that wasn’t my problem. Instead, I started this blog — and one of the things I like to do is try to explode some of the persistent and pernicious myths about my own family lines.

      You are right, though, that the “careless collection of data” is a problem, particularly when you consider the ease of copy and paste or, worse yet, downloading entire GEDCOMs. I just figure the rest of us can continue doing our thing. I have a (distant) Alexander cousin who likes to say: NOBODY has more fun than we do. True, right?

      Did you by any chance go to the Lunenburg courthouse while you were in VA? The people there were absolutely charming. If you have an ancestor there, we are surely distant cousins. Would love to talk further.


      1. Robin,
        Thank you. I really couldn’t give up genealogy. After so long, it is ingrained in my soul. Declaring war and exposing myths? That’s another thing.
        I didn’t visit the courthouse you mentioned but spent most my time in Chatham, Pittsylvania Co., VA where my Willard ancestors lived. They were also in Halifax for a while as well.
        I am descended from Mary Alexander, daughter of Samuel and Sarah Alexander of Mecklenburg Co., NC. Mary and Daniel Nichols were married in Madison Co., KY in 1790. They lived for some time in Logan Co. KY before moving to Rutherford Co., Tenn. abt 1810-11. There are many Alexander family members in Mecklenburg Co., NC. I do not know how they connect to those of Anson/Rowan County.

  2. AWESOME. Every American juror should have to read this before they hear a case and establish guilt or innocence. I know you’re talking about ancestry research, but the truths read clear for establishing guilt or innocence. I also liked your mention of the words that in my mind “pretend” to establish definitive proof of family connection. Very good Lawyer Willis.

  3. Thank you for this post. I agree – oral/family history is a start…the fun is in the detective work! Sometimes frustrating, but oh, so worth it. Thanks to both of you for the work you do, ‘Cousins’. I, too, am a Rankin and Estes descendant.

  4. Greetings
    Enjoyed your articles and I am at the proof part of establishing a line.
    When I find something to explore I remind myself without sources it is still fiction.
    Anyway my husband is in the Lindsey Clan Group# 11 out of North Carolina onto Sevier Tenn. A small group that seems to begin in Maryland and then down to Anson NC.
    Am trying to find some information on a John Westly Lindsey who possessed a family bible from William Lindsey NC that he passed to his granddaughter Rhea Shults age 15.
    Any information will be appreciated

    Debbie Lindsey

    1. Debbie, the only John Wesley Lindsey I know was a son of the William Lindsey who died in Nash Co., NC in 1817. John Wesley went to Leake Co., MS. I haven’t traced his children so don’t know anything about Thea Shults.

      Is this the John Wesley (also spelled Westley) you have in mind? Are these your Lindseys?

    2. OOPS! I just realized your said your husband is DNA Group #11. My bad … the William Lindsey who d. 1817 in Nash and had a son John Wesley is DNA Group #3. So I probably have the wrong John W. Sorry for the bad info.
      Have you tried contacting anyone involved with the Lindsey/Lindsay DNA Project website? Not the original Clan Lindsay website — the FTDNA project at this link: https://www.familytreedna.com/groups/lindsey-lindsay/about/background
      One of the list of co-administrators you will see on that home page is assigned specifically to Group 11 and is probably an expert. I don’t know which one it is, but Joseph Lindsey (one of the main administrators) is a nice guy and he can direct you to the right person. Good luck!

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