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.

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