Nov 102012

In previous posts, I analyzed evidence regarding my 2g-grandfather’s Civil War service to determine whether he served in the 11th Ohio Volunteer Militia (as indicated by a certificate received from the Office of the Ohio Adjutant General by my 1st cousin once removed). The first post evaluated the evidence without reference to the standard genealogical classification of sources (original / derivative), information (primary / secondary), and evidence (direct / indirect / negative); the second post was devoted to utilizing those classification categories. My more informal process of evaluation (the first post) arrived at the same conclusion as the more formal process (the second post). As I assess my learnings from these two posts, I shall attempt to a) identify my own personal process for evaluating evidence and b) identify what I learned after using the standard genealogical classification standards.

for Evaluating Genealogical Evidence:

Because I am a hobby genealogist / family historian, I have developed my own processes. I have strive to inform those processes with the best practices of the broader genealogical community. As a teen, I helped my uncle re-shingle the roof of our house. As he would lay the first shingle in a row – over-lapping the edge by 1/3 or 2/3 of the shingle – I would ask “Why?” His answer was always “It’s SOP (standard operating procedure).” To which I would always come back with “Why is it SOP?” Standards are important, but they need to be understood. I need to know why a particular standard has been developed before I am willing to make it a regular part of my repertoire. As a result, I tend to develop my own processes and practices, informed by the standards, rather than slavishly following someone else’s formula, even though it has the stamp of being SOP.

This exercise, in two modes, has helped my clarify my own process for examining and evaluating genealogical evidence. That process is:

  • See the Big Picture (individuals and events don’t happen in isolation)

I had clear evidence suggesting that my 2g-grandfather did served in the 19th OVI, the 44th ONG, and the 155th OVI (and no evidence suggesting that he did not). When I looked closely at the 1950 certificate about John Brenner’s service in the 11th OVM, I began to have questions because it didn’t seem to fit the big picture.

  • Remember my Goal (in a more formal process: the “research question”)

I was interested in confirming my 2g-grandfather’s Civil War service, with special interest in assessing whether he served in the 11th OVM.

  • Assess what fits into the Big Picture and Explain what doesn’t fit (painting with a broad-stroke brush)

All the information / evidence regarding the 19th OVI, the 44th ONG, and the 155th OVI fits the big picture; the information / evidence regarding the 11th OVM did not fit (especially the indication of John Brenner’s birth date as 15 April 1843). The issue here is consistency – Does the evidence paint a consistent picture throughout my research? Inconsistencies need to be explained.

  • Assess the Connections between the pieces and Explain the Disconnects (painting with a detail brush)

There was an evidence trail that connected my 2g-grandfather to the 19th OVI, the 44th ONG, and the 155th OVI, but not to the 11th OVM. The only evidence connecting him to the 11th OVM was the 1950 certificate from the Office of the Ohio Adjutant General. Clearly the Office of the OAG had mixed together information regarding two different men named John Brenner (both living adjacent counties in Ohio). The issue here is corroboration – Do the individual pieces of evidence corroborate one another or not? If not, then this needs to be further analyzed and explained.

  • Come to a Conclusion (well reasoned, supported by the evidence at hand; in a more formal process: “proof”)

While I do not know how the Office of the Ohio Adjutant General received information about the removal of my 2g-grandfather’s grave from Oak Hill Cemetery to Belmont Park Cemetery, it is reasonable to conclude that the receipt of this information was the occasion for said information to be mis-filed with the wrong John Brenner. It finally comes down to “What do I believe about the evidence?” I may be wrong, but I must be clear about my conclusions. Others may disagree. The discovery of new evidence may prove me wrong. But my conclusion, for now, is where I stand.

  • Be Open to New Evidence (and perhaps a new conclusion)

It is conceivable that the information regarding the 1843 birth of the John Brenner from Columbiana County could have been the information that was mis-filed (rather than the information regarding my 2g-grandfather’s burial). Were that to be the case, then I would have to re-assess whether or not my 2g-grandfather had served in the 11th OVM. Conclusions can change – by the introduction of new evidence or by the re-evaluation of existing evidence. Conclusions are not meant to be “eternal truths.”


regarding Standard Genealogical Classification of Sources, Information, and Evidence:

  1. Classification of Sources, Information, Evidence does NOT Replace Analysis and Evaluation

Designating sources as original / derivative, information as primary / secondary, evidence as direct / indirect / negative is a task in classification that sets the stage for analysis and evaluation; it is not evaluation itself. Direct evidence gleaned from primary information found in original sources may still be incorrect. As James Tanner (“Primary and Secondary Sources — Genealogy and Hearsay”) suggests “A priori designations may fatally prejudice consideration of valuable clues leading to an accurate picture of an ancestor.” Classification doesn’t replace analyzing and evaluating. At it’s best, it only lays a clear foundation from which to proceed.

  1. Methodological Tools, not Guarantees of Certainty

Classifying sources and information / evidence does not guarantee a result. The classification categories are simply tools to aid in the reflective processes by which we come to reasonable conclusions (“proofs”). It is not always clear, for example, whether a source is a primary or secondary source or whether the absence of information is negative evidence. Michael Hait (in a comment on his blog post, “Reconciling conflicting information–a case study) writes “So whether it is primary or secondary is actually a less important consideration than that it is likely the highest-quality and most reliable piece of information that we have….” Inability to distinguish the proper classification does not necessarily impede good evaluation. Good tools help, but are no substitute for good analysis and evaluation. Another observation from James Tanner (“Primary and Secondary Sources — Categorizing Evidence”): “The evidence is what it is. Whether you believe it or not is really the question. … But whether or not a particular piece of evidence is reliable or unreliable has nothing to do with assigning it to an artificial category.”

  1. Evidence-based or Conclusion-based?

Earlier this year Randy Seaver summed up an interesting conversation about two different approaches to genealogy (“More on Conclusion-Based and Evidence-Based Genealogy“). I followed that conversation with interest, trying to assess my own practice. The current exercise of classifying sources, information, and evidence brought me back to that conversation. As a puzzle solver, I like to start in the middle and work my way out… I don’t think that necessarily fits either category. It probably means that I am some kind of an amalgam, a blend of both approaches. I suspect that it ultimately doesn’t matter which approach one takes, as long as one researches carefully, cites regularly, reasons well, and shares judiciously. Each of us must determine which approaches will aid us in doing our best work in genealogy / family history.

In Summary: When a genealogist / family historian evaluates evidence gathered during research in order to arrive at assertions that bear a higher degree of confidence, the standards defined by the broader genealogical community (e.g., the BCG Genealogical Standards Manual or E. S. Mills’ Evidence and Evidence Explained) are helpful tools, not to be ignored; but, in the final analysis, good judgment and sound reasoning are the most important tools.

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