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Skillbuilding: The Genealogical Proof Standard: How Simple Can It Be?


From OnBoard - Newsletter of the BCG
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Thomas W. Jones, Ph.D., CG, CGL, “The Genealogical Proof Standard: How Simple Can It Be?,” OnBoard 16 (September 2010).

Many—perhaps most—genealogists acquainted with the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) believe it applies only to difficult problems. They know that new BCG applicants must apply it to a question of kinship or identity in the absence of direct evidence or when facing substantial conflicting evidence. They hear genealogical educators use such complex-evidence cases to demonstrate the GPS. They read articles invoking the GPS to convince them of the solution to a challenging question. Consequently, genealogists may generalize that applying the GPS requires gargantuan investments in research, reasoning, and writing. They also may believe it applies only to cases with no obvious solution. Such perceptions are mistaken.

No genealogical source is infallible. Even when the answer to a research question seems obvious, genealogists apply an assessment process to determine the validity of their conclusion and to achieve a standard of credibility. The GPS outlines that process and sets that standard. Abundant complex examples notwithstanding, applying the GPS can be straightforward.

A Metaphor for Genealogical Proof
Using the GPS resembles assembling jigsaw puzzles:
• Just as a picture emerges from assembled puzzle pieces, genealogical proof rests on the sum of evidence.
• Jigsaw puzzle pieces, usually contained in a box, may be found partly assembled. Valid genealogical evidence may be similarly easy to obtain and already partially connected. Sometimes, however, puzzle pieces and genealogical evidence items are scattered, intermingled with those of other puzzles or problems, difficult to locate, damaged, or irretrievably lost. Then the situation becomes complex, requiring researchers to hunt for pieces in all likely places and gather, examine, and sort them before they can assemble a recognizable picture or build a case that answers a research question. Fortunately, many genealogical questions require much less effort.
• Some puzzle pieces may be set aside because they do not belong to the puzzle at hand. Genealogical proof resolves conflicting evidence by discarding information that is unreliable or not applicable to the research question.
• Jigsaw puzzles range from about four pieces (for preschoolers) to thousands of pieces. The bits of evidence needed to “prove” an answer to a genealogical question also range from few to many.
• A clear picture or reliable answer may emerge even when pieces are missing. Three or four pieces of a six-piece puzzle, for example, may suffice. When the pieces are assembled correctly, pieces found later will augment the picture, not change it. A completely assembled puzzle is not necessary to reveal the picture it shows. A completely exhaustive search is not necessary to achieve genealogical proof.
• One puzzle can have many pieces that require much effort to reveal a picture, while another can have few pieces that require little effort to assemble. Similarly, one genealogical question can require many evidence items and much work to achieve an answer meeting the GPS, while another can require few evidence items and little work to meet the same standard.

A Straightforward Example
The following example recapitulates uncomplicated research that reveals a proved answer to a typical genealogical question. Reflecting the five elements of the GPS, the example concludes with a discussion of alternatives for presenting the conclusion in a written product.

Research question. Who were the parents of Mary L. Hunt who married William J. Clark in Hamilton County, Illinois, 1 November 1883?

The search, findings, and source citations. The search stopped with seven sources likely to provide evidence of a parental relationship in the place, time, and family. Although the first source answers the research question, its accuracy is unknown until its answer is compared with other evidence.

Exactly where to draw the line between a completely and a reasonably exhaustive search varies with the research question and findings (or shortage of findings). Untapped information about Mary’s siblings, remarried mother, stepfather, grandparents, husbands, and children could provide further evidence answering the research question. The seven sources, however, represent—or even exceed—a reasonable search:

1. Hamilton Co., Ill., Marriage Book 1:182, William J. Clark and Mary L. Hunt, 1 November 1883; Courthouse, McLeansboro, Ill. The marriage return, signed by “Mary L. Hunt” and others, identifies her as a widow, formerly Mary L. Jones, age thirty-one at her next birthday (therefore born 1852–53). It says she was born in Posey Co., Indiana, to Silas Jones and Sarah Whiting.

2. Hamilton Co., Marriage Book 1:31, Franklin P. Hunt and Mary L. Jones, 2 February 1881. The return, signed by M. L. Jones and others, identifies her as age twenty-seven on her next birthday (therefore born 1854–55). It names the same birthplace and parents as source 1.

3. Illinois, March 1937 Deaths, Franklin Co. certificate no. 68, Mary Lou Clark, 18 March 1937; Public Board of Health Archives, Springfield, Ill. The informant, Vergie Dudley, said her mother was born in Indiana on 14 January 1854 to “unknown” parents and was William Clark’s widow. The undertaker certified Mary Lou’s burial in Hamilton County. This source does not answer the research question, but mentioning it shows the search did not bypass a likely source for identifying parents in the place and time. The name “Mary Lou” is consistent with “Mary L.” in the previous sources.

4. 1860 U.S. census, Hamilton Co., Ill., population schedule, “T[wp.] 6 R[ange] 5 East,” p. 36, dwelling and family 227, Silas Jones household; National Archives and Records Administration microfilm publication M653, roll 183. Silas’s household includes Sarah E. Jones, age twenty-five, Mary L. Jones, six, therefore born 1853–54, and three younger children. Mary appears in all surviving United States censuses through 1930, but only the 1860 enumeration names Silas.

5. Hamilton Co., probate files, box 12, folder 26, Silas Jones; Courthouse, McLeansboro, Ill. Letters of administration granted 26 July 1862 specify Silas died 15 April 1862, leaving a widow, Sarah, and children, “Louisiana, William, Fannie, and Catherine.” On 13 August 1883 the estate was divided among Silas’s remarried widow, Sarah E. Waller, and his three surviving children, including Mary L. Hunt. The name “Louisiana” is consistent with “Mary Lou” in a previous source.

6. Sarah E. Jones, widow’s pension application no. 37,575, certificate no. 19,835; service of Silas Jones (Sgt., Co. F, 40th Illinois Infantry, Civil War); Case Files of Approved Pension Applications …, 1861–1934; Civil War and Later Pension Files; Department of Veterans Affairs, Record Group 15; National Archives, Washington, D.C. An affidavit of the remarried widow, Sarah E. Waller, 29 March 1902, says Silas was killed at Shiloh, 18 April 1862; she knew Silas from childhood, and he was never previously married. On 21 October 1868 Sarah said she married Silas at Posey County, Indiana, 3 March 1853, by “S. Neeley, M.G.,” and their children included “Mary L. Jones.” The pension file includes a “Family Record” which the Hamilton County Clerk certified saying “I myself took this leaf from a bible which was printed in the year 1854.” With varying handwriting and ink, it records the Silas Jones–Sarah E. Whiting marriage on 3 March 1853 and the birth of Mary L. Jones, 14 January 1854, preceding later marriages and births.

7. Posey Co., Ind., Marriage Record 3:372, Silas Jones and Sarah E. Whiting, 3 March 1853; County Clerk’s Office, Mt. Vernon, Ind.

Analysis and correlation. Via words and conventional formats, the citations indicate the sources are originals, show their independent origins, name known informants and record creators, and specify locations of unpublished material. No source disagrees with another’s answer to the research question. Differences among them are trivial.

Resolution of conflicting evidence. Uncomplicated genealogical evidence has no significant conflicts. Therefore, GPS element 4 is not applicable.

Conclusion. Mary Lou/Louisiana (Jones) (Hunt) Clark’s parents were Silas and Sarah E. (Whiting) Jones.

Presentation. While a format like the above meets standards for proof summaries, genealogists have more economical options for presenting self-evident conclusions. If this example were part of a narrative report or family history, a footnoted statement of the conclusion (resembling the one just above) might suffice. If the seven sources document other parts of the narrative, their appearance elsewhere in the same essay would show the search’s breadth. In that case, the note attached to the statement about parentage could cite only the best and most pertinent source. Alternatively, if the genealogist’s product—a chart, for example—provides little biographical detail, the footnote would cite several sources pertinent to the subject’s parentage, with any necessary explanatory information appended.

Uncomplicated conclusions require a clear statement, sources as close to the original as possible, and sometimes nothing more. If citations indicate straightforward evidence, adequate research breadth, and strong evidentiary qualities, knowledgeable consumers will see it meets the GPS. In self-evident cases, discussion of evidence beyond what citations provide could be redundant.

BCG Applications
New applicants demonstrate the GPS repeatedly. Their case studies apply it to a complex-evidence problem. Their kinship-determination projects and client reports rely on it for statements of identity and relationship. The instances range from simple to complex or a combination of both.

Renewing applicants, who need not submit the same work samples as new applicants, currently may assemble portfolios that bypass research standards (for example, portfolios consisting solely of book reviews, magazine articles, newspaper columns, and reports of finding or copying records). From May 2012 forward, however, renewing applicants will provide at least one work sample that applies the GPS, thus demonstrating ability to meet GPS research standards. The item may be a personal or client report, a proof argument or summary, or a family-history segment addressing either a complex or uncomplicated problem.

Work samples that meet standards provide explanations of evidence appropriate for the simplicity or complexity of the case. Complex-evidence cases may require pages of explanation. Self-evident cases may require only a sentence and footnote. Most cases fall between these extremes.

BCG applicants who apply the GPS—whether to simple or complex problems—show they can locate and assess relevant genealogical evidence and determine and report credible conclusions. Work that addresses the GPS, even with uncomplicated evidence, demonstrates the research competence the Certified Genealogist credential implies.

Thomas W. Jones, Ph.D., CG, CGL

This article was originally published in OnBoard, BCG’s educational newsletter and is protected by copyright. Individuals may download and print copies for their personal study. Educators are granted permission to provide copies to their students as long as BCG, OnBoard, and the appropriate author are credited as the source of the material. Republication elsewhere is not permitted.



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