News From Terre Haute, Indiana


June 30, 2013

Genalogy: Evaluating evidence important in genealogy

TERRE HAUTE — If you’re involved in genealogical research, then you cannot escape the fact that you have to evaluate evidence.

While we may think that our family pedigrees are based on facts, a better way to state this is that they are founded on evidence. And not all evidence is the same. In order to come to reasonable, valid conclusions in our research, we first have to know how to appraise the information before us.

One way of looking at each piece of information that we gather is to ask the following series of questions:

• What is the source of my information? Is it an original source or a derivative source?

• What kind of information do I have: Is it primary information or secondary information?

• And what type of evidence does this piece of information give me: Is it direct evidence or indirect evidence?

Evaluating all three of these questions can help lead you to reasonable conclusions.

Original information is defined as the first time something was recorded. It can be written, photographed, audio recorded or video recorded. Examples are: an original deed, your father’s baby picture, a tape recording of your grandmother telling about her early life, a video of your family reunion. Each of these items contains different kinds of information, but they all represent an original source.

Derivative information can include exact copies of an original, transcriptions, abstracts or simply recorded notes. So a derivative source can represent different levels of accuracy in the information about an event, when compared to its original source.

A photocopy of a deed is basically an exact copy. But a hand-written copy or transcription may or may not match its original due to the potential for copying error. A faithful scan of your dad’s baby picture is an exact copy of the original, but not so after you have enhanced it, cropped it or added color. A derivative source of information is not necessarily a bad source of information; it just needs to be seen for what it is (not the original) and evaluated as such.

Primary information is data recorded by a person about himself/herself, or information given by a person who participated in an event or witnessed an event. An entry in a diary where a woman gives her husband’s name and the date they married is primary information, so is that same information on a marriage record because it was recorded by an official whose job was to keep factual records of the county’s marriages.

Secondary information is material provided by someone who was not at an actual event, but may have heard about it from someone else. This can be furnished a long time after the original event has occurred and is subject to the shortcomings of memory. An example would be stories your grandmother told you about her parents’ lives before she was born, that her own mother had told her. This is secondary information because she was not actually there at the events, and the story she is telling you was told to her in the distant past.

Direct evidence is something that is clearly and implicitly stated as being a fact, such as the age and date of death carved on a tombstone: “Miriam Zoeller, died September 14, 1889, aged 84 years, 1 month, 6 days.” This is direct evidence for the date of death and age at death of this person. It is subject to error, however.

Indirect evidence supports an assumed fact by means of making a reasonable deduction from the direct evidence. The birth date of this individual is not stated on her tombstone and has to be calculated from the information supplied. The birth date of Aug. 8, 1805, is inferred from facts given and so is considered indirect evidence. Indirect evidence inferred from incorrect facts is also subject to error.


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