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Creating a Strong Foundation

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   Whenever you build something it’s important to have a strong foundation.  Building your family tree is no different...a weak foundation can cause your tree to collapse.  Whether you are just starting or trying to fix some earlier problems (we all have them), focusing on the basics can help you get back on track.  The foundation for your research begins with the Genealogical Proof Standard.

Genealogical Proof Standard

A reasonably exhaustive search
A complete and accurate citation to the sources
Analysis and correlation of the collected information
Resolution of conflicting evidence
Soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion1

Before You Start

Understand the importance of source citation.
Learn the basics of evidence and how to analyze it.
Understand the records you are using and don’t just collect names.
Decide how to organize and record your findings.

All research begins with a question.  

Start with yourself and work from what you know to the unknown.
Take good notes and cite all your sources.
Write an analysis of what you’ve found identifying new questions or conflicts.

   As we look at various sources, be they books, certificates, census records or other artifacts, we are gathering evidence from them and it’s therefore important that we understand what we’re looking at, why it was created, and the origins of the information contained in that source.  As genealogists and family historians, our goal is to find original sources: (1) documents that were created at the time an event took place, (2) by someone with first hand knowledge of the event.  We’re not always able to find original documents, but that is the goal to support our research.  If a source does not meet the two criteria listed above, it is a derivative source.

    The fact that a source is original doesn’t mean the information contained in it is correct.  My father-in-law’s original birth certificate spelled his name incorrectly.  All sources contain information and the information can be primary or secondary.  Primary information is information given by someone who was a participant in the event or who witnessed it.  Other information is secondary.  Primary information may contain errors as well.  A mother is present at the birth of her child, yet we all know of instances where the birthdate is incorrect.

    The third concept is of evidence.  Direct evidence provides the answer we are looking for such as a birth certificate with the name of the father and mother of the child.  Sometimes there is no direct evidence available and we need to write a proof summary using indirect evidence from multiple sources not directly related to the question we are trying to answer.  I needed to prove James was the son of David but there was no extant birth or baptismal record.  By following James’ land deeds through three New England towns, and two states, along with David’s will I was able to prove that the James who lived in New York was the son of David who died in Connecticut.

   It’s important to have a goal when you research.  A goal can be general but the objectives (the questions) you set to meet that goal need to be specific, measurable with a completion date in mind.  Once the objectives are set, you begin to create your research plan.  What do you already know about the individual… (a timeline can help here)?  What are the sources that might have the information to answer the question presented by the objective?  At this point, your research relates to identifying sources and the repositories (both on and offline) where the sources reside.  If the objective (question) is “Who are the parents of Roger Sherman Vail born about 1883 in Illinois,” what sources are available to answer that question?  You may need to research what records were kept in Illinois during that time…births, deaths, marriages, church, probate, land, newspapers.   Jurisdictions change over time and records typically remain in the jurisdiction where they were created.  Is the county the same at the time of the event as it is today?  What offline repositories might hold records?  You’ll also want to check census records to identify Roger beginning with the most recent and working back to find him in the household of his parents.  Each of these items is a task in your research plan.

   Once your plan is complete, begin your research.  Don’t stop with the first piece of evidence that provides an answer, but continue and document any conflicts in the results.  Some conflicts may be minor, a difference in the middle initial, which can be explained as a transcription error.  Are there other individuals in the same area with the same name?  Can they be ruled out?  Your research may turn up unexpected results, introduce new questions or point to other resources.  As you complete each task, write an analysis of the results, identifying any conflicts, their resolution and your conclusion, including complete source citations. If no direct evidence provides an answer, your analysis should include a proof argument derived from the sources that potentially answers the question.  This “proof” is based on the best sources available at the time and always open to change should new evidence arise. 

   Adherence to the principles of the Genealogical Proof Standard and research process will give your genealogy a strong foundation.

1 Board for Certification of Genealogists, The Genealogical Proof Standard,

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© Donna M. Moughty 2007- 2017