Or, how to ensure that the results of your research are correct.
I’ll start off by explaining the differences between primary and secondary evidence, and then address the Genealogical Proof Standard.
Primary and Secondary Evidence
This refers to Referring to the veracity of the information contained in a particular record.
Primary evidence is that which is recorded in documents created at or near the time of an event, the information having been contributed by a person who had a reasonably close knowledge of the facts.
For example, a birth certificate is primary evidence.
Secondary evidence is information found in documents created a significant amount of time after an event occurred, or contributed by a person who was not present at the event.
For example, an oral history in which the interviewee talks of her grandfather’s date of birth.
Primary evidence carries much more weight than secondary evidence. Much of the information we amass when tracing our ancestors is secondary evidence: it’s vital that the facts in your tree indicate whether the source is primary or secondary, and that secondary evidence should be verified by cross reference to primary sources wherever possible.
The Genealogical Proof Standard
This should be applied to every single piece of information we discover.
In brief, there are five elements to the Standard:
1. Make a ‘reasonably’ exhaustive search for all pertinent information
Note the quotation marks around ‘reasonably’. It is, clearly, impossible for anyone to wade through all the documents in every known archive/repository in the vain hope that a particular ancestor may be mentioned: but it’s not impossible once you’ve found an ancestor in – say – the 1851 census to look for them in all other available censuses (and I would include here the 1851 religious census) and to cross check with trade directories, business records etc. This is where the internet, I believe, is of the greatest use. Check online catalogues for archives – not forgetting The National Arhive (TNA). In fact the TNA catalogue should be your starting point, because it also lists resources which are held in other archives: http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/
2. Make sure you have a complete and accurate citation for each source
By which I mean what it is, where you found it, and the archive reference number.
Information from books or magazines should include a reference to the title, author, publication date, publisher and page number.
Information found on the internet should include the full URL address AND the date you accessed it (because information on the net is likely to change or even disappear at any given moment).
3. Analyse the quality of the information
This sounds tricky, but really means that you should consider when the information was collated, who collated it – did they have first hand knowledge of the facts? – and why.
An example: one of my ancestors is vilified in Shakespeare’s ‘Richard II’.
I’m very proud of this fact – in fact I dine out on it – but it must be borne in mind that
(a) this is a play, a piece of drama, not a historical record
(b) Shakespeare was born in 1564 and died in 1616. Richard II was born in 1367 and died in 1399. Shakespeare, therefore, was writing about events of which he had no personal knowledge whatsoever. He may have been right: equally, he may have been wrong. It still doesn’t stop me enjoying his portrayal of my ancestor: but I don’t accept it as incontrovertible fact.
4. Resolve any conlicting evidence
For example, there are two men called George Fieldhouse shown in the Wolverhampton rate books for 1802. Both have the same occupation.
To ascertain which one is which, I must trace both trees backwards – in fact, as suspected, they have a common ancestor and are cousins – also noting the details of their respective marriages – and also forwards, to ascertain dates of death for both men.
I also need to search for their wills (which will reveal the exectutors and beneficiaries) to obtain a solid bedrock of information from which I can say ‘This one is the one who founded the company…’ And if it’s impossible to reach such a conclusion? Then say so in your notes. ‘The evidence suggests that this was the same man who… but note that the parish registers for St Peter’s Church, Wolverhampton reveal that…’
And remember – ALWAYS remember – that the verisimilitude of any information in documents such as parish records or census returns is only as good as the person recording it was told. People lied – they still do. The 1911 census may well tell us how many years the head of house and his wife said they were married – but if the eldest child was born out of wedlock or very shortly thereafter, the census may be – well, shall we say ‘not entirely truthful’ ?
5. Arrive at a reasoned conclusion
And this may be as simple as “although the father shown on Ann Burgess’s marriage certificate is named as John Burgess, her baptism record shows that she was illegitimate and no father was named. Ann’s mother subsequently married a man named John Warrender, and therefore it appears that the ‘John Burgess’ named as father is in fact ‘John Warrender’ who was Ann’s stepfather.”