Byline: SHARON TATE MOODY; TIMES CORRESPONDENT
People charged with a crime have their day in court where a jury determines if the prosecution has proven him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.In an imaginary genealogy court, we can approach our investigations as if they were crimes, gathering evidence to prove relationships between certain individuals and their ancestors and descendants or to establish specific events in an ancestor's life. But our standard of proof is not "beyond a reasonable doubt."Instead, we should take our evidence through five steps of a proof process.
Step One. We must conduct a reasonably exhaustive search for all information that is or may be pertinent to the identity, relationship, event or situation in question. This means we never accept a single piece of evidence as proof of a relationship. For example, when we find a tombstone that provides a date of birth and date of death for an ancestor, we have not proven either of those events. We should continue to find other sources that will substantiate or conflict with the tombstone. We should look at every conceivable place such dates could appear, such as birth and death certificates, obituaries, military pension applications, censuses, etc.
Step Two. We develop an accurate citation to the source of each item used.
Step Three. We analyze and correlate the collected information to assess its quality as evidence. A part of this is to look closely and question the reason, the motivation and the reliability of the source.
Step Four. Based on the analysis we resolve conflicts in the information.
Step Five. We write a soundly reasoned conclusion based on the evidence we've collected.
Until we process each piece of information that leads us to state a relationship or establish an event, we have not met this Genealogical Proof Standard. Until we meet this standard, all we have are pieces of evidence, not proof of the event or relationship.
The tombstone of John J. Whiddon provides a simple example. It shows Whiddon's date of birth as Nov. 30, 1870. We cannot accept this as proof of his date of birth although it is backed by the same date of birth on his death certificate. His obituary conflicts a bit, stating he was 76 when he died in July 1945 - this would have placed his birth in 1869.
Censuses are notorious for age errors. Studying them does not provide an actual date of birth for Whiddon, but it does provide evidence that the date on the tombstone probably is inaccurate.
Working backward from the 1940 census to the 1870 census, we find ages that indicate birth years from 1871 to 1868. The 1900 census is the only year that provided a birth month and year. It showed him as born November 1868. It is the 1870 census that establishes that the inaccuracy of the tombstone. This year shows that as of June 1870 John was 1 year old, six months before his tombstone says he was born. If we analyze this based on his birth likely being November 1868, he would have turned 1 in November 1869 and that certainly points to the tombstone being wrong.
By writing a report for our research files, we can list all the sources (with complete citations) that we checked for information on John's birth date and discuss the degree (or lack) of reliability of each source.
In the real world, once tried-whether guilty or not-a person can not be tried again for that offense. But in the genealogy world, an investigation really never stops and conclusions never are final. We must keep minds open and tuned to the possibility that new evidence could become available and will require us to re-evaluate our original conclusions.
Send your genealogical methodology questions and event announcements to Sharon Tate Moody at email@example.com.
PHOTO - Sharon Tate Moody - Special to the Times: A check of other sources shows the date of birth on John J. Whiddon's tombstone probably is not correct.