Is it Right?

September 8, 20207:36 amLeave a Comment

It’s a match but is it right? This is the question which plagues all family historians at any given time and how often have we agonised over whether the ancestor buried in Ipswich is the ‘right’ person even though the family came from Bury St Edmunds?

Well you’re not alone, if that’s any comfort, and any family historian worth his or her salt should be meticulous in trying to ensure that they have made every effort to prove that something is correct. However, what if you can’t? Or, what if you can only make an educated guess or an assumption? How can we know that we have done everything we can to ensure that the information we have gathered is as near correct as it could possibly be?

Musing on this the other day I made a serendipitous find on Pinterest (my social media vice of choice!) which was an article called Can Your Family Tree Pass the 5 Step “Proof” Test? by Janet Maydem who writes for the American website Family History Daily. She uses something called the Genealogical Proof Standard which was produced by the Board for Certification of Genealogists, which seems to be a US version of our own AGRA.

To paraphrase her article (which is well worth reading along with many other useful articles on this site) she highlights 5 questions we need to ask ourselves:

1) Have we conducted reasonably exhaustive research?

Do we have multiple sources for a particular fact we are trying to establish and if not, is that source reliable enough for the purpose? For example, we might have 3 sources for a birth date: a family bible; a birth certificate and a baptism entry. Perhaps the baptism entry differs from the birth certificate and if so, we need to decide which one is most likely to be correct.

2) Citation of sources (and I’m banging on an old drum with this one!).

Have you kept a record of where you found this information and where the original record is kept? Online sites will usually (although not always in an obvious way) show you where the original records are held and the appropriate reference numbers.

3) Analysis and correlation of information.

Does this information make sense and does it fit together with other aspects of your family history? It’s no good assuming that the Robert Wood you found buried in Scarborough and for which you found an obituary in the newspaper is the same as the Robert Wood who lived in Hull and died around the same time, despite both being tailors and both having sons named Robert (and yes, I’m speaking from personal experience here!!). Sometimes you have to mentally step back from your research (or even better, get an opinion from another family historian) to make sure you’re not simply making something fit.

4) Resolution of conflicts.

This one sounds much more dramatic than it actually is as it’s really just highlighting gaps in your family tree and listing out what you’ve done to try and find the information. The article boldly suggests that you need to resolve every discrepancy or conflict in your family tree but I think more a slightly more realistic approach would be to identify the gaps and then start making a plan on how you might find the information. You could start making a list of questions you want to ask and think about how and where you might start asking them (writing to us would be a good start!!). It’s surprising just how much you can resolve just by thinking of the right questions to ask.

5) Conclusion and Resolution

This follows on from No 4 for me. If you have something which doesn’t seem to work, keep a record on your family tree that you are not sure about it and what you are trying to do to resolve the issue. For example, I use a ‘colour code’ system on my family tree (which I keep on a family history package). Black for a fact that I believe I have proved to be correct beyond reasonable doubt; Blue for a fact that I am pretty sure is correct but have yet to prove conclusively, for example, a trusted index or transcript; and finally Red for something which I cannot prove but think might be correct.

Many years ago at university as part of my degree I took a term studying medieval archaeology. The tutor at the time warned us against enthusiasm overtaking accuracy by stating that an archaeologist always finds what they are looking for, suggesting that if we want to find something desperately enough, we will. I think we can equally apply this to family history. A family historian will inevitably make someone fit into their family tree because they want to make them fit. It’s tempting to do this but hopefully some of the suggestions given above will help keep us on the straight and narrow path of diligent family history research!

Keep well and safe and Happy Researching!

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Written by Jane Lewis - Modified by ESP Admin

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