28 May 2010


      Sometimes we family researchers see brick walls where they do not exist. We strive for certainty in a field in which certainty does not exist. You want proof beyond ALL doubt that Adam O'Firstman is your 10th great grandfather? Ahhh, 'tis but the stuff of genealogical dreams.      In my last week's post, I discussed the role of hearsay in our genealogical research. So much of the evidence upon which we family historians must rely is tainted by hearsay and other problems of reliability and authenticity. So, the question arises--when can we, in confidence, enter onto our charts and computer programs the "fact" that Adam O'Firstman is our 10th great grandfather?
     If you need that answer for a lineage or heritage society, I must tell you to stop reading right now and consult the society's requirements. If you demand that your research must reach a professional level of proof, then consult a professional or one of the guidebooks on genealogy evidence.
     But if you are like most of us family historians--trying to preserve your family's history with your best efforts--you can avoid many of the pitfalls of bad research methods by understanding the standards of proof. There are two pitfalls to avoid. One is to become so frustrated with the standards of proof that you drop family history research altogether. I recently met a woman who attended a local genealogy class and decided that she would not pursue her family history. She despaired of being able to follow all the rules and "must do's" the instructor had presented. The other pitfall is to be so accepting of those online  public trees that you click on one and import it into your genealogy program and call it your own. Most of us occupy the middle ground, the gray area. At some point, we satisfy ourselves that Adam O'Firstman is an ancestor and move on.
     An awareness of the standards of proof helps us to make an intelligent decision as to when we can move on. We need to be concious of how stong a case we have built for claiming Adam O'Firstman.
1) Reasonable suspicion is the lowest standard. In legal terms, a police officer can stop you but not arrest you if she has reasonable suspicion. So view reasonable suspicion as those genealogical clues that warrant a stop and a bit of research (e.g., family tales say that our ancestors are from Galway).
2) Probable cause will get you arrested. In genealogical terms, probable cause is a signal that you are on the right research path (e.g., an obit saying that Adam O'Firstman was born in Co. Galway).
3) Preponderance of the evidence means that it is more likely than not to be true. This is the standard used in US civil courts. At this stage, you might be comfortable claiming Adam as your ancestor, with source notations and perhaps a note explaining how you reached that conclusion.  You have reached this stage perhaps when you have found a baptism record for Adam O'Firstman, the only man of that name baptized in Galway in a certain decade, plus you have records of this Adam's children, and their names match those of your known ancestors.
4) Clear and convincing evidence is more substantial than "more likely than not."
5) Beyond a reasonable doubt is the standard used in US criminal courts. Note that this standard is NOT "beyond ALL" doubt, it only eliminates REASONABLE doubts. Unreasonable doubts can still exist. What is an unreasonable doubt? Well, let's say that Eve O'Firstlady gave birth to you before six witnesses, you have official and DNA records of your existence and parentage, plus you are the spitting image of Eve when she was your age.But if you insist that, as in Irish folklore, Eve is not your mother because the faeries took you from your cradle and replaced you with a changeling, then you are asserting an unreasonable doubt.  From this point, standards of proof become philosophical and scientific arguments--I'm not going there!
     Many of the problems associated with proving ancestry can be avoided by always noting your sources. By doing so, you are preserving the evidence that supports your decision to accept an assertion of ancestry as true. You allow other family members and future generations to evaluate for themselves whether you have met your burden of proving that Adam O'Firstman has earned that spot on your tree branch. By the way, be aware of the difference between "burden of proof" and "standard of proof." The burden of proof refers to the party or person who has the job of persuasion. A prosecutor has the burden of proving the defendant guilty. You have the burden of proving that Adam O'Firstman is your ancestor. The standard of proof  measures whether you have met that burden. Always meet your burden of proof by providing sources for your findings.
     Oops, I forgot to mention the standard applied by my late father, may God rest his soul. The "Jim Large" standard places the word "alleged" before every name I have placed in the family tree. Like Dad, some people simply can't be convinced. We all have a "doubting Thomas" in our family who questions all those hours of exhaustive research we have done. But then, my Dad was a cop, and in the justice system, he served at the stage where the criminals are "alleged" and  are "innocent until proven guilty." I am more comfortable in the gray zone since my job as a prosecutor involved building a case and meeting the burden of proof--as does my job as a family historian.
     Welcome to the gray zone!