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

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Beyond both evidence and proof

Some of the comments made to my recent post of "Beyond Evidence to Proof" noted the fact that this issue has "been raised many times in the genealogical community."  That is likely very true, since I have written on the subject several times myself. I think the issue of defining genealogical proof is related, but not the same, as many other disciplines. Analogies to law and science may be helpful, but historical proof is always open ended as I previously noted and as confirmed by several comments.

I suggest we may want to move on beyond the rather confining concepts of evidence and proof to a more expansive view of genealogy. When we focus on evidence we are looking at specific facts relating to specific events or circumstances. The issue of proof arises most commonly in the context of trying to establish relationships such as parentage. Gathering evidence and establishing the proof of a given conjecture or hypothesis is substance of the day-to-day activity of a research genealogist. Perhaps this focus often ignores the larger historical context. Maybe the current emphasis on the "stories and photographs" is a reaction to this perceived narrow interpretation of human history.

For example, in addressing a multitude of "brick wall" situations where the researchers claim that they have spent years looking for an individual, I often find that the researchers know little or nothing about the local, regional or national history surrounding their family. Because their particular individual ancestor or ancestral family is not well known or famous, they ignore the context of their family's lives and continue to look for evidence of a specific event to prove or extend a relationship to previous generations.

I ran into this issue again this week. I had a patron at the Mesa FamilySearch Library approach me after a class and ask for help in finding an ancestor she stated she had been researching for years. I asked the standard questions about who, when and where and was told a now very familiar response: the ancestor was born in Kentucky in about 1760 to 1780. Just once, I would like to talk to someone who had done even five minutes of reading history before spending years looking for evidence in Kentucky. Just for the record, Kentucky became a state on 1 June 1792 and was never a territory. Until that time, it was part of the state of Virginia. This is what I mean when I suggest going beyond evidence and proof.

Now, you might argue that the fact of statehood for Kentucky is just another piece of evidence and very material evidence but I very, very regularly ask about state and county boundaries in my classes and it is rare that any of the researchers in the classes are aware of the resources for finding changes in state and county boundaries. I find almost no one who has checked to see whether or not a particular location cited for an ancestor was correct at the time of the events they are researching. Names of ancestors can change. Dates can be approximate. But locations are fixed on the surface of the earth. What is not fixed is where the genealogically related records from any given location may have been created and stored. Hence the need to understand and research the local, state (province, district etc.) and national history of any locality. I cannot tell you how many times I have asked the simple question of when was such and such county organized and received a blank stare and no response from a researcher. In addition, I frequently mention the need to read a local, county or state history, only to have the person look through the book summarily and dismiss it because their ancestor's name does not appear in the index.

Returning to the case of Kentucky, most of what is now the state of Kentucky was in Fincastle county Virginia or, at least, the extension of that county. By 1776, the eastern counties of Virginia were fairly well established along their current boundaries, but the western counties were largely defined by rivers and mountains. If someone recorded their birthplace as Kentucky, before statehood, what did that really mean? Just for fun, go look at and study the Newberry Atlas of Historical County Boundaries for more specific information.

Genealogy cannot be divorced from history, but you would think it was a separate pursuit if you had my experience in talking to and teaching aspiring researchers. Ask yourself if you have ever thought; why am I reading this history book when I should be looking for my ancestors?

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this post. I have been searching for information on my husbands 4x great grandfather. I (erroneously) though he was in Bedford County PA, but after looking at Newberry Atlas it appears that the tiny segment I have been searching is actually in Northumberland County PA.

    That may be the reason I am not finding things.