Documenting Genealogy, or “Proving” a Pedigree

A genealogy without documentation appears careless and someone who is careless with authorities can be just as careless with facts and family relationships. A genealogy that asks you to believe a link because a family member says it is correct is a trigger for suspicion. The accuracy of a genealogical statement is acceptable only if it can be verified; i.e., someone else can find it.

Documentation—photocopy of the document or entry with source identified, or citation of the record from which an abstract or extract is made—is a prerequisite for accurate conclusions. Regardless of how plausible the data seem, without citations, they are suspect. Minimal items needed to document each source are:

  1. If the record is printed—author, title, place and date of publication, publisher, volume, and page
  2. If the record is a manuscript source—title, creating authority, locality from which the record comes, date, volume, and page, call number or library or archive where the record is found
  3. The format of footnotes and bibliography is also significant. A genealogy with a reading list or general bibliography at the end of the book is less useful than footnote references which document specific facts or data.

A credible genealogy will also clearly distinguish between proven facts documented with source references, conclusions drawn by matching conflicting evidence together, and family tradition which may still be uncorroborated. Family tradition and legend usually contain kernels of truth, often embellished or abbreviated by associated events, persons, dates, and relationships which may or may not be true. Each must be corroborated by separate sources and carefully documented.

Watch for statements of tradition then look for corresponding references to sources—both written and oral. Legend, like pepper, is best when used sparingly. See Camillus J. Dismukes, “Aids for the Family Historian: Mechanics, Pitfalls, and Concepts of Genealogy,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 57 (Sep 1969): 163-78.

Inexperienced genealogists may confuse document proof with documenting a pedigree. You can document a fact by producing at least one photocopy or citation for each link. And, thus you can end up “proving” pedigree connections that are not true. Without careful analysis of the evidence you merely link vital events.

Linking one generation to another is usually approached by linking several documents to one another. You match names, dates, places, and relationships to prove that the John McCormack who died in Lincoln County Kentucky is the same man who was a member of the militia in Fauquier County Virginia. Each individual on a lineage chart has a name, was born to two parents, lived in specific geographic locations at identifiable dates. These are the facts you collect and attempt to match. As a result, what you call genealogy is actually a specialized form of record or document linkage rather than just the descent of one person from a set of parents. See Robert C. Anderson, Elements of Genealogical Analysis: How to Maximize Your Research—Using the Great Migration Study Project Method. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, American Ancestors, 2014.

The ease of creating a pedigree from indexed internet entries is a warning for genealogists—and the need to ensure that each ancestor connected to your pedigree has been carefully vetted. Your favorite genealogist, Arlene Eakle

PS Stay close as I share the methods I use to “prove” a pedigree—genealogy is a learned skill!

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