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

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Primary and Secondary Sources -- Genealogy and Hearsay

Imagine you are in a civil or criminal trial before a judge and jury. The witness is on the stand and direct examination begins:

Attorney No. 1: What happened on the night of the 26th?
Witness: Johnny said...
Attorney No. 2: Objection your Honor, hearsay.
Judge: Sustained, (to the witness) you have to testify to what you saw, not what someone else said.

This is the essence of hearsay; second hand reporting of what someone said. But wait, isn't this the essence of genealogical research? You bet. We thrive on what people reported about what others told them. The whole area of oral history relies on people's memories of what they were told during older ancestors' lifetimes. So, should this testimony be barred from genealogy as unreliable?

This example points out the major differences between proof in a legal sense and proof in a genealogical sense. As much as some would like to believe, they are not the same. The reasons for having hearsay rules and all the possible exceptions are complex. But in court, the fact that I learned information from another person may or may not be admissible and if an objection is sustained, the testimony if given is stricken from the record and must not even be considered by the judge or jury. From a client's viewpoint, participation in a civil or criminal trial can be an extremely frustrating experience. The cry is often, "How can I prove my case if I can't tell them what was said."

From the standpoint of history and genealogy, all evidence (i.e. testimonial or documentary) is admissible. Everything should be considered and weighed. Artificial designations as to relevance, primary versus secondary and etc. are not especially useful, but the ability to compare and evaluated are important. Why then do the distinctions exist in the genealogical literature?

Information obtain at or about the time of the event reported from a participant in the event is one of the most inclusive definitions of a primary source. But as I have pointed out in the past, attendance at an event is not conclusive of reliability. Just as so-called primary evidence cannot be accepted as true on its face, neither should secondary evidence be rejected simply because it was either recorded or related at the point in time distant from the event reported. It is not infrequent that oral evidence passed down in the family is entirely false, but from time to time there are real gems of historical fact in family stories.

It is the job of the genealogical researcher to sift through all of the evidence, oral, written, primary, secondary or whatever designated by others, and make reasonable value judgements as to the accuracy of what is considered. A priori designations may fatally prejudice consideration of valuable clues leading to an accurate picture of an ancestor.

What genealogist can do, just as is done by a judge and jury, is to weigh the evidence. Weighing the evidence takes into account the reliability of the informant and the consistency of the evidence and whether or not it can be corroborated from other sources. Just as we don't accept U.S. Census records on their face as accurate, we do not automatically reject them either. Each piece of evidence must stand on its own merits and yet pass the test of consistency with everything else we know about a subject.

I have often listened to a recitation of the "facts" of a certain case and then had the person relating those facts act as though I should accept everything they have said to me as true. I would be foolish to do so. Although I have been lied to on occasion, most people believe their version of the facts that they relate to me. Not only do they expect that I will believe them, but they also expect the judge and/or jury to believe them, bases solely on their oral testimony. Corroboration is part of the essence of proof. The danger of course is that the corroborators all got their story from the same source. For the same reason that I do not necessarily believe a recitation of the "facts" in a law case, I also do not believe any one source as conclusive proof of an event or individual.

For example, I have been informed of my birthdate. I have a copy of my birth certificate. I have numerous written documents throughout my life and other evidence that I was born on a certain day. Is there still a chance that all of this evidence might be wrong? Could I have been born on a different date? What if I found out I was adopted and had no exact date of birth even though I believed all my life otherwise?

So when is a fact proven? That is the question.

Tune in for still more.


  1. All my life I've looked at my birthday, 9/9/1944, with glee. It compresses to 9, and 9 has been my lucky number forever. Surprise! I was born at 12:05 a.m. during daylight saving time, so my birthday is technically 9/8/1944, which screws up my lucky number and messes with my sense of identity. And what about all my astrological charts over the years? Sigh.

  2. Very clear explanation of 'proof', James. In my own family, my 4th child was born at 12 minutes after midnight on June 21st - daylight savings time. So we joke that he was actually born on June 20th and he can pick his own birthday.