RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees No. 12

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RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees
Guide No. 12: 

Creating Worthwhile Genealogies for Our Families and Descendants


Nature of Evidence:


Type of Evidence

Original Sources

Secondary Materials

Forms of Evidence

The best form of evidence is the original document or record.

When an original document is not available, a legible scanned copy, photocopy, or microform (film or fiche) copy of the original document should be obtained.

If an original document is not extant, one must rely on the official transcript of a document (such as a deed or will) entered in a record book by the clerk.

One should not rely on an unofficial transcript of, extract from, or abstract of an original document if the document itself or a copy of it is available.


Family historians must learn to weigh and evaluate evidence similar to the way juries do. There are differences, however.

In a court of law there are two major categories of evidence:

But we genealogists do not have judges to tell us what can or cannot be heard. We "hear" it all. We look at every shred of information we find and sometimes draw incorrect conclusions because we do not know how to weigh it or how to resolve the frequent occurrence of conflicting evidence.

Researchers often assume that if several pieces of information agree, the data must be correct. Such assumptions often lead to erroneous pedigrees and frequently create genealogical dead-ends. There is a great deal of confusion surrounding the terms "evidence," "proof," and "sources." Donn Devine, a certified genealogist and practicing attorney, in an excellent article on "Evidence and Sources" in Ancestry magazine, provides this guidance:

Citation Example

5. Virgil Walter 3 Earp 14  (Nicholas Porter2, Walter1)  He married (1) Magdelana C. "Ellen" Rysdam15  September 21, 1861 in Knoxville, Marion County, Iowa.16  He married (2) Rosella Dragoo16  1870 in Lamar, Barton County, Missouri.17  He married (3) Alvira Packingham Sullivan about 1874, daughter of John B. Sullivan and Mary Norman.18

14.  Jean Whitten Edwards, Earp Family Genealogy, (Breckenridge, Texas: Breck Printing, 1991), 150-151.
15.  Myra Vanderpool Gormley, American Genealogy Magazine, Vol. 9, No. 4, July-August 1994; published by Datatrace Systems, P.O. Box 1587, Stephenville, TX 76401; James Pylant, editor, pages 23-24, [Ellen's maiden name is given as Sysdam and Rysdam. In I Married Wyatt Earp, (Note 5, Chapter 3) it says Virgil Earp married Ellen Rysdam in Marion County, Iowa using his middle name, Walter, and listing her as Ellen Donahoo; however, that marriage record is that of Walter McKendree Earp (1836-1935), the son of Peter Asbury Earp, according to Earp Family Genealogy, 148.
16.  Jean Whitten Edwards, Earp Family Genealogy, (Breckenridge, Texas: Breck Printing, 1991), 151.
17.  U.S. Census, 1870 Barton County, Missouri, Population Schedule. (NARS M593, Roll 757, p. 830B). Lamar township, Barton post office, page 830B, family numbers 212, 213 and 214.
18.  Glenn G. Boyer, Wyatt Earp: Facts (Volume Three), (Rodeo, New Mexico: Historical Research Associates, 1997), 26.

Family historians should be cognizant that most genealogy software programs use predetermined terms in their report format, such as "married" that may or may not be 100 percent accurate. The compiler may or may not have overridden default options or included footnotes to indicate variants. In this instance (above) the term "married" is used (FN16) and that is how the relationship was referred to in the sources so cited. Nevertheless, research in primary sources has not turned up a marriage license or record to either the first or third "wife" assigned to Virgil Earp.

Remember to cite the specific sources you actually used in compiling your family history.

"Source notes have two purposes: to record the specific location of each piece of data and to record details that affect the use or evaluation of that data." (Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian).

After collecting information, take a careful look at what you have and sort it into two groups:

Get as close to the primary records and original documents as you can. However, keep in mind that even they may contain errors. Just because it is a primary source does not guarantee the information is 100 percent correct, but it is more likely to be. Additionally, make the effort to trace your secondary evidence back to primary sources. Don't blindly accept information you find in a book, CD, or on the Internet — or from your relatives' memories.

How do you resolve conflicting evidence?

Follow the advice of Thomas W. Jones, Ph.D., CG, given in a National Genealogical Society Conference lecture: Judge Each Item of Evidence with the test of the four "Cs":

Of course, if you do not know where the information came from, how can you evaluate it? That is why you should carefully record and cite your sources. To create worthwhile genealogies for our families we need to use the best records and sources available, do the best work we can so our family histories may be continued by our descendants, and so they will not have to duplicate all of our work because they do not what sources we used to reach our conclusions. offers numerous free professional charts and forms that you can download.

Suggested Reading & References

Additional Resources

Links in this Guide
(in order they appeared)

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