Reprise: what is “proof” of family history?

This is a repost of an article from 2018. It has received more views on this website than any article I’ve written except the one about the Scots-Irish. The title indicates the topic is genealogical proof , which is a slight misdirection. The article is initially about what is, and is not, genealogical evidence. Then it attacks a tougher question: how much evidence is needed to say we have proof. Now, back to the original article.

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,” as she uses that term. 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 not, not, 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.  I have a copy of a 1762 Lunenburg Co., VA deed, Thomas Winn grantor, witnessed by John Winn, Daniel Winn, John Winn, and John Winn. Nothing to distinguish between the John Winns. Some of those colonists clearly had a sense of humor. Lunenburg Deed Book 7: 227. 
  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. For example, suppose the child eventually sells an inherited tract of land and the deed recites that the tract was “left to me by my father William Rankin by his last will and testament dated 2 April 1792 …” 

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 includes deeds, will and other probate records, tax lists, church birth and death records, census records, tombstone inscriptions, and so on. It does not include a family tree posted at the FHL or Ancestry websites, nor does it include a compiled family history, which is how trees were published in the pre-internet era.

Notice that the word “prove” appears in the definition of evidence. 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: 65-85% of the evidence supports a conclusion.
  • Preponderance of the evidence: a conclusion is more likely than not – it has the weight of at least 51% of the evidence.

Naturally, there are parallels in family history research, or I wouldn’t be carrying on 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. There is also 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 at Ma Rankin’s “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 credible evidence strongly points one way.

The “eye of the beholder” obviously plays a role in this determination. I may deem a conclusion “most likely;” you might find it only “probable.” This is a major reason why one would want to know the evidence for another genealogist’s conclusion … you might not find the evidence sufficiently compelling to justify accepting the conclusion.

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 such as this can establish a compelling web of family connections suggesting one reasonable conclusion: 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 …”  or “it is reported that ...”  Hmmmmm…. who believed or reported? And what is his or her evidence? Those phrases rightfully justify a jaundiced eye unless the writer provides evidence supporting the “belief.”

In all fairness, I do need to point out one thing about those old compiled family histories. Academic writers routinely cite evidence supporting factual assertions in their books, papers, and articles. Historically, family history researchers have not done so. No telling why — perhaps because genealogists, unlike academics, aren’t writing to burnish a reputation or (usually) to make money. We do this because it’s fun, or we want to share, or we’re just curious about our history. Or all of the above. 

Fortunately, more family history researchers now seem willing to share evidence and provide citations to county and other records. As a cautionary note, though, here’s a piece of advice I received from a woman researcher I had been peppering with questions via email back in the ’90s. She had obviously reached the end of her rope. “Honey,” she said, “if you really want to find answers to all those questions, I suggest you go dig around in the records of Middlesex County, Virginia. Your library has a bunch of good abstracts.” <grin> I took her advice.

Finally, 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 Rankin as Jacob Rankin’s father. Those online trees are not even evidence of a relationship between those two men. All they might prove is that many online trees are copies of other online family trees. Or that many people believe Jedediah was Jacob’s father. But … evidence? Nope.

See you on down the road.

Robin

4 thoughts on “Reprise: what is “proof” of family history?”

  1. Thank you for your insight and persistence in digging for truth. Your blog provides thoughtful approaches to the hunt for puzzle pieces. I’ve found this hobby a fascinating way to learn history, which I did not enjoy in school. I was a clinical researcher in my younger years. The standards I expected for that work were much stricter than what I’ve done as I explored on Ancestry.com. Sometimes I’ve gone down rabbit trails I was seriously doubtful were correct, but I’ve come to appreciate our forebears fortitude in living out their beliefs even if the people I’m reading about aren’t really my own ancestors. Now, I’ll need to do some serious cleaning up of my tree.
    Thanks again,
    Suzanne Spencer

  2. Excellent and awesome at the same time. You’re amazing in what you produce. I can’t imagine your joy at finding a kindred spirit willing to do ancestry work at your level, and that is an unbelievable level. Keep up the good work that I could never do, BUT can and will always see your worth.

  3. I really enjoyed your article, it was just what I needed to keep me on the straight and narrow. As the owner of several family histories, it is tempting to accept their accuracy. Also as I have worked on my “proof” of John Winn b. Ca 1730 as the John Winn of Amelia County who served as a delegate to the State Conventions for Statehood; for acceptance in the SAR, I am reminded that much is necessary. The only thing that is certain in life is… “Taxes and Death”. If anyone out there has an obituary for him, I would appreciate a copy. He died, Ca. 25 Jan 1781

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