by Toby Webb
Anyone new to genealogy in the last decade or so has probably heard the field’s cry for source citations, evidentiary analysis, and meeting the Genealogical Proof Standard. The opening chapters of Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills summarize many of the principles by which, we are told, we should be evaluating our work. But I was delighted to find, in my continued browsing through the online archives of the NGS Quarterly, an issue that both launched those standards and provided great practical help in using them.
Volume 87 of the Quarterly, which NGS members can download as a PDF file, includes the September 1999 issue, which was dedicated entirely to the question of genealogical evidence. Ms. Mills’s opening article pulls together the best principles of evidence analysis for genealogists, the principles which have been the bases for judging our work ever since. Perhaps because this was the seminal article on this topic, it is extremely instructive. It doesn’t just lay out the principles as some subsequent guides have done, but puts them into the context of prior, inadequate genealogical standards. This discussion of past shortcomings helped me better understand the principles now being taught. It also explained the emphasis now being given to the quality of our analyses.
The issue is helpful in another important way. It suggests that our genealogical proof might fall into one of four situations: 1) we have direct evidence for our conclusion; 2) we have conflicting direct evidence; 3) we are relying upon an accumulation of indirect evidence; or 4) we are relying upon an accumulation of indirect evidence that actually contradicts some direct evidence. How might our proof argument be written in each of these cases? The issue has four articles, one in each of these categories, showing how skilled genealogists have assembled and analyzed their evidence and how they have written up their conclusions.
This landmark issue was important reading when it was published. It remains so. Members can find it online in the NGSQ Archives. Be sure to log in on the NGS website – or take this opportunity to join if you're not yet a member. Then choose the Publications & Videos tab, and click on NGS Member Periodicals.