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Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Whatever happened to genealogical evidence standards?

Donald Lines Jacobus, FASG (1887-1970) is generally recognized as the founder of the modern school of genealogy in the United States. See NGS Genealogy Hall of Fame Members. He is credited with "elevating genealogy to the high degree of scholarship it now occupies." There were, of course, other researchers who were influential in setting a more professional standard for family history, such as Gilbert Cope in Pennsylvania, Colonel Lemuel Chester and Henry F. Waters from New England. Read more: One of the most important developments in genealogical research was the trend towards establishing a genealogical evidence standard, loosely based on the legal standards in our American court system.

But let's fast forward to today in 2009. For the past few years I have been teaching classes on genealogy. During those years, I have probably taught and worked with a couple of thousand people. With very, very, few exceptions, I cannot remember any of those hundreds of students, even those who had been active in genealogy for years, who could even articulate a genealogical evidence standard. Most of the students eyes would glass over if I even tried to explain the need for an evidence standard.

In contrast to this vast lack of understanding on the part of the ordinary genealogist of the need to examine original source documents, and evaluate them in terms of some standard of proof, standards of proof are implicit in the more professional world of genealogical journal writing. But I am afraid that most of that professional effort is entirely lost in the day-to-day world of the casual researcher.

Almost every class taught on genealogy in my area of the world, concentrates on the methodology of genealogy, rather than the philosophy or evidentiary standards. It is time to return to the roots of American genealogy and emphasize the need to be concerned with the degree of proof necessary to reasonably establish a pedigree. In this cut and paste world of names online, it is too easy to find some one with the same surname and immediately assume a connection, without even thinking about the context.

In one case recently, I was asked a question by a genealogist about whether I thought two families were related. The researcher had found two families in Illinois in the mid-1800s. They had the same surname (which was relatively common) and the dates were a close match for father and son. As I began to look at the evidence, I noted that although the dates matched, the two families actually lived clear across the state from each other. I indicated that it might be better if they could find some connection other than just the same surname between the families. At this point, the researcher got very huffy, and decided she didn't need my advice after all. She was convinced that the families were related. I am afraid that genealogical evidence standards were pretty much lost on that researcher.

If I can just go online and immediately find my ancestor in some huge database, why would I care about evidence, original documents or standards? Those of us who are old enough, might remember savings stamps from the supermarkets. You would get a little book with squares marked off and each time you went to the store you got some stamps to paste into the book. Filled books would get you a discount on some future purchase or even other merchandise from a catalog. I sometimes get the impression that many people think of genealogy like savings stamps, the people they find are just a name to fill into a form, and they get satisfaction from having a completed form.

After more than thirty four years of practicing law, I think I am probably overly concerned with the question of proof, but I would hope that the more common world of the casual genealogist would move more towards a reasonable and practical level of proof, rather than ignoring the issue as is presently the most common reaction.


  1. Good post - right on commentary.

    Trying to pound the GPS into heads full of pedigree charts and fmaily trees is difficult.

    As part ofo ur CVGS seminars, I presented about 15 charts on the GPS in April 2008, and then modified the presentation for April 2009, but kept the same charts on GPS. I asked later if anyone at both seminars remembered the charts in 2008 - nobody did. Even had it on both handouts.

    I wasn't surprised... the GPS concept is too difficult for 98% of the society members and seminar audience. I'll keep trying!

    Cheers -- Randy

  2. Genealogy is a great hobby that is very addicting. But if you actually want to find out who your ancestors were and if you are not willing to put in the time required to learn how to use the tools, then hire a competent professional. And pick something else to pursue as your retirement hobby.

    We have too many hobbyists genealogists who decide they want to do the equivalent of building a house but they have no idea of the difference between a mitre saw and a hack saw.

  3. While I haven't had proper classes or any training (to speak of), I've always thought being able to PROVE a connection was imperative. I've only searched sporadically for 20 years or so, but I'll have to agree, it is frustrating to try to explain why I can't just write anyone with the same last name into the family tree...