Truth or Goof: Where’s the Proof? by Mary Penner

What is a fact?  Google the definition of “fact” and you’ll get a variety of answers.  Most definitions hinge on the concept of truth; so, a common definition would be that a fact is something that can be proven to be true. Then how do you define “truth?”  Well, one definition asserts that truth is a fact that has been verified.  We’re back where we started.

Abraham Lincoln addressed the dilemma of truth by positing this question:  “How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg?  Four — calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.”  That’s the “aha” moment for genealogists; simply saying your ancestor was born on such and such a date in such and such a place doesn’t make it so.  Unless you can travel back in time and witness your ancestor’s birth, you’ll never know the absolute truth about that happy event. Even eyewitnesses to events can mangle the facts; just ask any police detective investigating a crime.

Genealogists frequently wrangle with these concepts of “facts” and “truth.”  We try to figure out what is true, or factual, about our ancestral past and what is Pulitzer prize-worthy fiction.  Pulling together an accurate family history is problematic because we rely largely on the efforts made by humans decades–even centuries ago.  And humans, as we all know, are prone to blunders, miscalculations, carelessness, and gargantuan goofs.  That’s why every time we collect a piece of information about our ancestors from a source we need to consider the reliability of the source.

In the genealogy world we distinguish sources in two ways:  original and derivative.  An original source is something in its original form usually created by someone with firsthand information about the details described in the source.  A derivative source is anything that provides information apart from its original form.

For example, an original death certificate filled out by a physician who was present when the dearly deceased departed is considered an original source. 

That original death certificate may have been sent to the state or county for safekeeping.  And, maybe the county recorder transcribed all of the information from the death certificate into a ledger book.  The ledger book would be considered a derivative source, even if the careful clerk accurately recorded everything from the original source.

That’s the kicker, though – just how careful were the recorders and transcribers of our ancestral comings and goings? 

Maybe that physician had spent the last twenty hours helping to deliver a stubborn baby and when he arrived at Granddad’s deathbed he wasn’t quite sure what time it was, or even what day it was.  In his sleep-deprived stupor, he might have mistakenly scribbled that Granddad expired on the 21st when it was actually the 31st. So, even though we have an original source the information may not always be true, factual, or reliable.

Keep in mind, also, that sources often contain two kinds of information:  primary and secondary.  Primary information comes from an actual participant or observer of an event.  Secondary information is based on what people believe or claim to be true even though they don’t have firsthand knowledge of the event.

Since the good doctor was present at the death, the date and time of death and the identity of the deceased would be considered primary information regardless of whether it was accurate or not.

And, consider this scenario: death certificates often include place of birth and birth date.  It was highly unlikely that the grieving widow, who provided those details to the doctor, witnessed her future husband’s birth.  The birth information on the death certificate would be classified as secondary even though it’s documented on an original source.  She may have believed that he was born in Linn County, Kansas because that’s what he always said, but, perhaps, in reality, he was born in Lyon County, Kansas and moved to Linn with his family when he was six months old.

You can see how easy it is for errors to creep into both original and derivative sources, and for primary and secondary information to be inaccurate despite the good intentions of those who provided the information. 

When juggling primary and secondary information in both original and derivative sources, you also need to consider the type of the evidence.  Evidence can be direct or indirect.  Direct evidence provides information without any need to ponder the conclusion.  For example, you want to know Granddad’s date of death.  You look on his death certificate and there’s the date right there in black and white (never mind, at this point, that the date is incorrect).  Indirect evidence, on the other hand, doesn’t clearly provide the answer to your question.  You have to draw on several different sources to reach a conclusion.  Let’s assume Granddad’s death certificate burned in a courthouse fire, but, fortunately, the probate records were saved.  Granddad’s file doesn’t list his date of death, but it does have dates scattered through the file that give you an idea when he died.  Plus, you found his name listed in a local store ledger four months before the probate case opened.  Using indirect evidence, you’re getting closer to drawing a reasonable conclusion about his date of death.  That’s assuming, of course, that the store clerk didn’t keep Granddad’s name on the account even though he was dead, and it was really Granny who bought the tobacco and not Granddad. 

So, what’s a genealogist to do when facing an assortment of documents with all of these truths, half-truths, educated guesses, unfortunate mistakes, and flat-out lies?  Turn to the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS).

Adopted by the Board for Certification of Genealogists, the GPS serves as a standard for credibility in the genealogy world.  Genealogical research should satisfy the five elements of the GPS in order to establish confidence in our research conclusions.  The five elements are:

  1. Conduct a reasonably exhaustive search.  Death dates pop up on a number of different sources.  I shouldn’t assume that Granddad died on the 21st just because the death certificate says so.  Look at all available sources to confirm his death date.
  2. Cite your sources.  Anyone can manufacture a family history; but if the research can’t be verified through identifiable sources, it lacks credibility.
  3. Analyze and draw conclusions based on your research.  Think critically about the data you’ve found.  How reliable is the source, the information, and the evidence?
  4. Resolve conflicting evidence.  Even though the death certificate lists Granddad’s death on the 21st his tombstone lists it as the 31st.  Further research should help you determine which death date is the most probable.
  5. Create a written account of your research.  We should compile our research, our conclusions, and our sources into a coherent written document.

After all that, you now have research that you will be proud to pin your name to.  Until, of course, a new document surfaces that shoots your conclusions all to heck.  That is why genealogies are rarely shifted to the out box with an emphatic “DONE” stamped on them.

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Genealogical writer, researcher, and lecturer Mary Penner resides in New Mexico. She can be reached through her website at: www.marypenner.com.

8 thoughts on “Truth or Goof: Where’s the Proof? by Mary Penner

  1. This article explains a lot of the misconceptions I run into when discussing family trees. One of my favorite signature tag lines I created for myself is this:
    Rajordan’s Genealogy Theorem: If you have one source you have a proven fact.
    Rajordan’s Corollary: If you have two sources, they will contradict each other.

  2. You haven’t allowed for the modern typo ( ie a mistake in typing the information)- my mother’s death certificate said she died on 13th November when it was actually the 23rd. One difference it made was an extra week’s pension money. Fortunately we spotted it before the certificate was submitted to all the relevant agencies dealing with her estate.

  3. How do you go about changing an error on an Ancestry.com file? Ancestry shows my birth county as Brewster Co., Texas, when in fact I was born in Briscoe Co., Texas. I don’t know who made the error or how to get it corrected, so any help you could give me would be appreciated.

    Thanks you,
    Teresa Sutton

  4. Coincidentally, a situation just like this (conflicting dates) came up today on a mailing list. Several of us have separately researched this particular woman, whose tombstone says she died in August of 1893, but an obituary was published in September 1892, reporting that she died the previous July. What I can’t state unequivocally is that the person (now deceased) who sent me the obituary followed her normal procedure of printing from a microfilm and then wrote the correct publication date on the print copy. For this the first step is to consult the original newspaper and, chuckle, make sure it wasn’t a Mark Twain-like incident in which the news of his death was exaggerated.

    In the past something like this would have made me crazy. But after running into a great number of similar cases, I’ve chosen to document each source and discrepancy, then let the puzzle be part of the immense entertainment of this hobby/obsession, instead of an aggravating itch I can’t scratch.

  5. My son died at 11:15 p. m. on May 13. We told everyone who knew him he died on May 13, and reported that to the newspaper. But the ambulance arrived after midnight and recorded the death as May 14. Some day that may confuse someone. It may have happened many other times.
    Roy Howard, father of Rick Howard who died 5/13/2004.

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  8. What a great article. Thanks for the definitions. I am scrupulous about citing my sources, and I refuse to add info to my tree unless I have good reason to think it’s accurate. My dear friend, OTOH, adds any ‘match’ to her tree that Ancestry.com generates. As a result, she believes she is now related to Mayflower arrivals, the Queen of England, and at least one US President. Her rationale: “I’m an only child, my son is adopted so he doesn’t care, and other relatives aren’t interested in my lines, and I have no one to leave this stuff to. So I’m just having fun. I don’t care if it’s true.” I tell her my own philosophy about accuracy, but try to leave it at that. Sigh.

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