You’ve gathered all kinds of information in searching for an answer to your research question. Do you know what you have? How credible is the information?
To get these answers, you need to identify the types of evidence you have and the quality of that information.
When you find information that directly answers your research question, that is called “direct evidence.” For instance, let’s say your research question is, “When was Ann Smith [insert identifying information] born?” If you found a source that states Ann Smith was born on 10 December 1860, you have direct evidence because it directly answers your research question.
Direct evidence may be wrong. Don’t get lulled into thinking it must be right because it’s direct evidence and that’s what the record states. One example is found in the work by William Richard Cutter, A.M., editorial supervisor at the New England Historic and Genealogical Society, when in 1912 he published Genealogical and Family History of Western New York. In this work, Cutter linked Joseph Chaplin of Virgil, New York, as the same man who was born 17 October 1760, the son of Joseph Chaplin and Sarah Seeton of Lunenburg, Massachusetts.1
Cutter was wrong, but many others have taken this printed genealogy as proof and perpetuated this error for many decades. In fact, Joseph Chaplin of Virgil, New York, was born 10 April 1755, the son of Joseph Chaplin and Sarah Stedman of Windham, Connecticut.2
Indirect evidence is when you use two or more independent information elements together to determine an answer to your research question.
Let’s use the same example as above, “When was Ann Smith [insert identifying information] born?” Let’s say you found an 1860 U.S. census record of the household where she does not appear as a child, though the rest of the household seems to have been reported accurately, and upon her father’s death the next year, she’s listed as one of his surviving children in guardianship records. The indirect evidence is she was born sometime between the 1860 U.S. census enumeration date, 1 June 1860, and the date of the guardianship record in 1861. Since both information elements were used to narrow her birth date, you have indirect evidence of a time frame for her date of birth.
NEGATIVE EVIDENCE is “the absence of information that answers a research question.”3 It is a “type of evidence arising from an absence of a situation or information in extant records where that information might be expected[.]”4
Let’s say your research question is, “When did Ann Smith’s family leave the county?” You already found them in the county in the U.S. censuses for 1860, and 1870, but they did not appear in the 1880 or 1900. The absence of an enumeration for them where they would have been had they stayed in the county is negative evidence. When you find them elsewhere in the 1880 and 1900 U.S. censuses, then you may use the two information elements for indirect evidence of their relocation time frame.
Be careful you don’t assume too much from negative evidence. Let’s say your research question is, “When did Ann Smith’s father die?” If he was enumerated with his family in the 1860 U.S. census, and then did not appear with his family in the subsequent census, it is negative evidence that he was not there, but it does not prove he died. He could have been working somewhere else at the time of the enumeration.
Negative evidence is not to be confused with a NEGATIVE SEARCH. A Negative Search is “a search that does not yield useful evidence.”5
For your evidence to truly stack up as “proof,” it must come from independent informants. For instance, if the information you find in a variety of sources is identical across the board, it may have been created by the same witness or informant. Even though you may have 23 sources that all give the same information if they are quoting the same informant or source, it must be treated as ONE information element rather than 23. In my search for the parents of Joseph Chaplin of Virgil, I found many works subsequent to Cutter’s that perpetuated the error. Their sources were Cutter. Thus, they were not independent informants.
Your challenge is to identify the types of evidence you have found in your research and to make sure it stands the test.
Assemble your findings in a visual way to help you spot the strengths and weaknesses in your findings. To do this, you might set up a table with your research question and the headings:
- Information element
- Informant or witness
- Type of evidence (direct, indirect, or negative)
For more information on evidence analysis, check out these great resources in the footnotes:
- William Richard Cutter, A.M., editorial supervisor, Genealogical and Family History of Western New York: A Record of the Achievements of Her People in the Making of a Commonwealth and the Building of a Nation, 3 volumes (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing co., 1912), 3:1147. ↩
- Windham, Connecticut, Town Records, vol. A:317 and B:10; Town Clerk’s Office, Windham, see also, “Joseph and Daniel Chaplin of the Town of Virgil, Cortland County, New York,” The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record 143 (January 2012): 21-37. ↩
- Thomas W. Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof (Arlington, VA.: National Genealogical Society, 2013), 15. ↩
- Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards (Arlington, Virginia: The Board for Certification of Genealogists, 2014), 71. ↩
- Genealogy Standards, 71. ↩