Miryelle Resek | Jul 7, 2017

5 Steps to Proving an Ancestor Is Related to You

This is the first of a two-part series exploring the Genealogical Proof Standard.

In her RootsTech 2017 Presentation, Crista Cowan, corporate genealogist at Ancestry, talked about the Genealogical Proof Standard and quoted a statement from the Board for Certification of Genealogists: “Proof is a fundamental concept in genealogy. In order to merit confidence, each conclusion about an ancestor must have sufficient credibility to be accepted as proved.”

But what does this mean for you?

Cowan explained that as you search for your family members and add them to your family tree, you want to “make sure you’re climbing your family tree and not somebody else’s.”

Citing the guidelines provided in the Genealogical Proof Standard, a process used by genealogists to demonstrate the minimums that genealogists must do for their work to be credible, Cowan outlined a few tactics you can use to ensure that your research is correct.

Step One: Reasonably Exhaustive Search

Many of us are guilty of continually looking in the same spots because it’s easy to search there. We focus only on the documents we have, hoping to find something we may have missed. In the end we get the same result—nothing.

Cowan noted that when you feel stuck in your search, it’s time to branch out and look in all the possible places that may have records of your ancestors.

That means looking in places that involve a bit of exploring. For some of us it may mean contacting old relatives; for others of us, it may mean breaking away from oral histories and digging through digital archives with census records or military documents for proof of who’s in our tree and who isn’t. It even might mean going to libraries to see what services are offered there.

Expanding how we search for the relatives on our family tree can help us pluck out the leaves that might not belong and graft in the branches that do.

Step Two: Complete, Accurate Source Citation

Do you remember an era when you did source citations by hand or in a word processor, making sure you got all the dots and periods and dates and parentheses in the right places?

Thanks to modern technology, the process is far less frustrating and tedious, but it should still be done. With many sites, such as Ancestry, a source citation is created each time you find a record and save it to your family tree.

One benefit of source citation that Cowan mentions is that “it forces you to pay attention to the record.”

Many of us assume that what has been handed down to us is accurate, but without getting an accurate source citation, it’s harder to prove why an ancestor is related to us further down the road.

Step Three: Write a Coherent Conclusion

Once you’ve found a relative and cited the evidence proving that the ancestor you’ve found belongs to your tree, a coherent conclusion should be written. This gives those coming to investigate your tree later on an explanation of why you placed the individual where you did.

Attaching the evidence you have to your ancestor’s profile can make problems with the next step easier for you to untangle should you find conflicting evidence.

Step Four: Resolve Conflicting Evidence

Sometimes you have conflicting evidence: one record says that your ancestor was born one year, yet another clearly shows he was born in a different year.

This step may be where you run into brick walls. You have to really go through your evidence and ask yourself if you have enough information to move on to the next ancestor.

If not, start back to step one. As Cowan noted, “If it’s been a while since you’ve done a search, come back and search again. Re-research.”

Step Five: Analyze and Correct Information

With the wealth of information available, it can be easy to mistake someone else’s relative with your own—especially if they were born in the same city on the same day and have the same name.

Cowan says that “making sure you’ve got the right information for the right people is a critical step.” But how do you know which relative is yours?

Because the steps Cowan shared aren’t necessarily linear, it’s easy to jump back and forth between them. This means that while you may be on step five, jumping back to step one is okay.

When Cowan runs into situations where there may be a weak link in her family tree, she says she looks for new places to search or new evidence to analyze.

As she does this, she lets others following her tree know that her tree is a work in progress. She says, “My tree is clearly labeled in Ancestry ‘The Cowan Working Tree,’ because I want anybody who shows up to see my tree to know these are my current working theories.”

When her evidence is complete, she lets others see and know why she reached the conclusion she did so they can look through and analyze if the information is correct or not.

How do you apply the Genealogical Proof Standard to your research? Tweet @RootsTechConf to join the conversation.

Miryelle Resek

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