Friday, September 30, 2011

Why I Think that Conflicting Evidence Gives Us Great Opportunities

Opportunity? Some of the most interesting breakthroughs in genealogy begin with a researcher noticing conflict in evidence.

[Those allergic to travelogues may skip the next three paragraphs. I was complaining about this type of writing earlier this week. I guess I'll have to eat crow on this topic!]

When I was a newbie genealogist, I wanted straightforward facts. I wanted consistent dates and clear locations. I wanted direct evidence about family structure. Relentlessly I filled out my pedigree chart. My biggest concern was whether I named a location by its current name or by its colonial name (Milford, New Haven Colony; or Milford, New Haven Co., Connecticut?).

About eight years into my genealogy career, i.e., around 1992, I had my first chance to speak outside of local societies. I was asked to fill in for a speaker who would not make the joint Tarrytown, New York, event co-sponsored by NEHGS and NYG&B. I have no idea how my name came up on the list, but the topic at hand was the evaluation of evidence. The original presenter had been a lawyer. I knew I had not a chance in H-E-doubly-hockey sticks of truly filling his shoes.

I had to find a way to discuss evidence analysis without getting too sticky. I realized that I had a few documents in my own family files that were in conflict with other documents. I had the gall to title the 1992 speech, “Not Quite Right: Finding Errors in Sources.” I guess I knew it all back then.

[Those allergic to travelogues can resume reading here.]

In looking back, I have to admit that my approach to conflicting evidence has changed in the last two decades. I still think that a person can only be born or die once, that is, on one date in one location. A part of me continues to be determined to figure that out what is true. Over time, however, I’ve come to understand that I need to keep the complexity and ambiguity of the underlying source materials in my files, in my mind, and in my writing about them.

My chance to speak on Geneabloggers’ Radio on Friday night with Pat Richley-Erickson, Claire Brisson-Banks and Michael Hait about conflicting evidence has made me take a deeper look. Everywhere I look, I see that at its core conflicting evidence represents great research opportunity.

The link to BlogTalk Radio for Friday is Digging Deeper: Dealing with Conflicting Genealogy Evidence . The show begins at 10 pm Eastern time.

This week sees the introduction of a new book in France examining the causes of a fraud perpetrated by a woman named Misha Defonseca.[1] It may not be a coincidence that the publisher of this new book explaining (read: explaining away) Misha’s fraud is the same publisher who originally published the fraudulent story.[2] French law differs from American law. Misha’s quick admission of error and the publisher's psychological excuse for that error might possibly serve to limit legal liability in the long run. All that, though, is an issue for the courts.

The original fraud was uncovered a few years ago by Sharon Sergeant, a professional genealogist working in Massachusetts. Sharon noticed that Misha’s book about her life as a child during World War II had different versions in the U.S. and in France. What had been altered was the evidence about the family in which Misha had grown up. When the book was published in France, evidence about Misha’s origins in Belgium was removed. Sharon investigated this conflicting evidence and uncovered fraud. The presentation of the conflicting evidence caused the author to admit it was fabricated.[3]

Noticing a conflict in evidence provided Sharon with a toehold on a hidden situation. Where we encounter conflict in evidence, we might be encountering a good story, a journal article, or just simply an excellent genealogy adventure. Think positive about conflict!


[1] Lionel Duroy, Survivre avec les Loups: la Véritable Histoire de Misha Defonseca (France: XO Editions, 2011).

[2] Misha Defonseca, Vera Lee [co-writer], and Marie-Thérèse Cuny [trans./auteur], Survivre avec les Loups (France: XO Editions, 2005).

[2] Caleb Daniloff, “A Genealogist Reveals the Painful Truth about Three Holocaust Memoirs: They’re Fiction,” Bostonia, Summer 2009 issue; , viewed 29 September 2011. Scroll down to the section titled Red Flags and Zigzags to see what evidence was in conflict.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

How Do We Notice Conflicting Evidence?

It just so happens that an essay about a conflicting-evidence case is the sixth portfolio element in an application to become a Board-certified genealogist.[1] As a board member, I’ve spoken a handful of times about the certification process. Often audience members will ask if a particular case they have would qualify as a good portfolio element. I can’t answer that question; there is simply no way for me to know based on a two-sentence description when many documents and quite a bit of study would be needed to even know what the case is. However, in a broad way, I have a few guidelines.

I think that we sort through conflicting evidence very often in our research. The thing is, we sift it out fairly quickly. How many times have you used a city directory and found more than one person by a name? Quickly, we realize that we are tracking the William Snow who lives on Broad Street and not the one who lives on Main. Recently, I was following the Thomas H. Roberts who was a funeral director in Detroit and not the one who was a carpenter, although it did occur to me that carpenters could make coffins. One of my friends told me she was tracking a Patrick Murphy and the two men by that name both had wives named Mary. Fortunately, she knew which occupation each had.

Looking at these problems from outside our own mindsets, we could also say that we had conflicting information. We could say that Patrick Murphy lived at two addresses for a number of years. My friend ended up doing a conflicting evidence analysis on the two men so that she could sort out exactly which one’s death certificate her client actually needed — and how she’d recognize the right certificate when she found it.

In my work on the Welles family, I’ve frequently found situations in which two men with the same name live in the same town during the Revolution. It seems that within five generations there were enough cousins naming children after grandparents and uncles that confusion can reign. I found two instances of men named Josiah Welles marrying a woman named Anna Stillman. Only one was correct. There is an article there if I ever find the time to write it.

If we can grasp the conflict before we sift it out, we might be able to capture something important. So, the next time you find conflicting evidence, think, “There might be a journal article in here someplace.”


[1] Board for Certification of Genealogist, The BCG Application Guide (Washington, DC: Board for Certification of Genealogists, 2011), pp. 6-7, , viewed 29 September 2011.

Conflicting Evidence: What Is It?

What is “evidence”? What does it mean when it is “conflicting”? Succinctly put:

  • A document contains “evidence” only in terms of your research question. If your question is, “Was Charles the father of Barbara?” then Barbara’s birth certificate will contain direct evidence by naming her father. On the other hand, Barbara’s APG membership card will have little evidentiary value in answering that question.
  • Evidence is “direct” if it provides an answer to the research question. Everyone’s favorite example of this is a household group in the 1880 federal census in which relationship to the head of household is stated.
  • Evidence is “indirect” if it can be used to support an answer in a subtle way. Everyone’s favorite example of indirect evidence is a household group in the 1850 federal census. For example, if Barbara was a one-year-old youngster living in the household of Charles in 1850, we could conclude that the household structure does not preclude Barbara as a child of Charles. If they were related, this is just what we would expect to find. However, the census makes no direct statement about relationship and such a household structure could come about in other ways. We have to live with ambiguity in the 1850 census as it does not provide a direct "yes or no" answer to the research question.
  • Evidence is “conflicting” when two documents provide completely different answers to the research question.
I once had an audience member tell me that she had a situation in which the death date on the gravestone and the death date in the vital records were different. She asked me which one she should ignore. I wasn’t horrified by the question. In fact, it was familiar. In my early days as a genealogist, this was how I approached conflicting evidence. I wanted to know which date was right and which date was wrong.

After a few decades of experience, I now understand that it is a bad idea to bury conflicting evidence. If I write about an event as if that conflicting evidence doesn’t exist, then future researchers will be confused. They will find that evidence just as I did and they will doubt the depth of my research or the credibility of my conclusions as a result. Even worse, I might be wrong in my conclusion about which piece of evidence to keep. Therefore, we keep all the evidence we find. I like to make comments in footnotes about conflicting evidence and why I didn’t use it. That lets readers know my thought process and helps in the long run for all of us to come to reliable conclusions.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Revisiting the Genealogical Travelogue

Nearly a decade ago I wrote about the use of travelogue-style organization in genealogical writing.[1] My point-of-view was that genealogical writing should be document-centered. I wrote that a travelogue is only reasonable for a report about negative research findings and then only if it is structured around the types of documents which were sought.

Recently I had another opportunity to think on this topic. A quarterly journal from a state genealogy society included a travelogue article.[2] To be fair, it is a follow-up to a more conventional article in the previous issue which won the society’s 2012 “Tell Your Family History” prize.[3]

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Three Kinds of Research Plans We Use

Humbled by yesterday's hour researching Homer and Charry (Everett) Curtiss, I came to the conclusion that there are three kinds of research plans in this world.
  • The fill-in-the-blanks plan that is aimed at getting dates and places for the people listed on a pedigree chart.
  • The mindful plan, which first understands the historical and cultural structures around the people, then thoughtfully determines what is available and which likely sources might yield the most helpful information. 
  • The scorched-earth plan that is aimed at getting absolutely everything that could possibly exist for the people under study. 
My impulsive fill-in-the-blanks approach to supporting statements of fact on Homer and Charry did not yield fruit. Perhaps it's time for me to take a mindful approach.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Homer and Charry: Can We Do Better?

Today is a good day to continue our examination of online ahnentafels We looked at the cited references for Homer and Charry (Everett) Curtiss that we found online.[1]  I checked out what they supported as far as the statements of fact. We eventually found that the dates were supported except for the exact date of death for Charry. The details for these ancestors of Sarah Palin were: 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

It Isn't Personal: It's about the Work Product

This blog has as its focus how I assess the quality of the genealogical work that I see and use. By putting this focus on quality, I learn about what makes some work more reliable or credible that other work. This is not and will not become a discussion about any particular genealogist. Genealogists will appear in the blog only in the context of citations as authors, compilers, editors, and web-based site managers.

I was concerned that I as well as any people who commented on my posts would keep this in mind. For that reason, in setting up the blog, I required that commenters identify themselves. I also required that all comments be approved by me before posting. I did not, however, make my focus on work products completely clear at the outset.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Why We Should Demand Better Source Citations

The ahnentafel of Sarah Palin's paternal ancestry includes some source citations. For this reason, it initially achieved credibility among the Wikipedia editors. To my mind, though, the citations in the online ahnentafel present two issues, both of which make it lose credibility with this Demanding Genealogist.

For one thing, I want every (and I do mean every) statement of fact to have a source citation. In the case of an ahnentafel, each date, each location, and each relationship to parents is a statement of fact. I do expect that a single source might give more than one of these facts. Birth records, for example, often include the child's full name, the parents' full names, and the date and location of birth.

Looking at the ahnentafel at , however, shows that the source citations are in many places either distant from the facts or missing completely. Take a look at generation 1. Mr. Battle states:

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Wikipedia Misled by an Online Ahnentafel

About a year ago, I learned how to correct errors on Wikipedia. There is a protocol and etiquette so that a collaborative editing process goes smoothly. Fortunately, most of the other editors on that page were patient with my learning curve. Once I had been guided into the correct etiquette, the change was made peacefully.

Wikipedia also has policies or protocols about the sources of information for statements made in the articles. Those sources have to be published and available. The sources that led me to realize there was an error were not readily available. Some were on microfilm, some were in manuscripts, and the analysis was in my head. I had to search for a new way of explaining the error using online sources before I could get it corrected.