“How do I know that the person in this record is my ancestor?” The answer is not always an easy or definite one. To be able to make an intelligent assessment of family connections, a good family history detective considers and evaluates the evidence.
We all have an innate understanding of evidence. If you see fresh snow on the ground in the morning, you use the rule of circumstantial evidence to deduce that it snowed overnight. If you tell your spouse about car accident you witnessed, you are reporting your eyewitness evidence. If, while gossiping with a friend, you tell her that “Annie said Johnny cheated on Sally,” you are passing along hearsay.
Similarly, genealogy records fall into different categories of evidence, and these categories affect their trustworthiness. For example, the information in a 1900 United States census form for a John Magee in Camden, New Jersey, was given by an unknown person to a census taker. In contrast, the 1901 Irish census form for a John Magee in Belfast was completed and signed by a John Magee. The handwritten personal knowledge on the Irish census is more trustworthy than is the third-party hearsay on the U.S. census.
A researcher must consider the nature and reliability of evidence. Who provided the information? Who recorded it? Was there reason for the person to give or enter false information? Was the information within the recorder’s knowledge, or was it hearsay? What the information recorded close in time to the event?
Thus, a birth certificate filled out, by a parent or midwife, on the same day as the birth is generally considered reliable, while much of the information on death certificates is notoriously untrustworthy. Why? Well, the person with the best knowledge—the one who knows the names of his parents, plus his own birth date and location—is the (silent) deceased!
The best practice a researcher can adopt when placing a person into the family tree is to document the evidence she is using to support her claim of ancestry. Citations are crucial! Are you seeking to join a lineage society or to obtain a Certificate of Irish Heritage? Check the requirements carefully, and make sure your records meet the required standard of proof.
Author: Deborah Large Fox
For more information on your family research visit Deborah’s blog spot: