Evidence Standards
in Genealogy

Evidence standards are the rules used to determine which pieces of evidence are more reliable than others. Genealogists 'borrow' these standards from the legal profession.

As a lawyer hearing cases and looking at various types of documentation related to my particular sphere of work, I am accustomed to looking at all of the evidence, and, where there is conflicting information, giving some types or pieces of documentation more 'weight' than others. After a while, applying the evidence standards becomes almost automatic.

Evidence Standards: Primary versus Secondary Evidence

One of the primary rules in looking at standards of evidence is that the most reliable document is one that was generated at, or very near, the time of the event, by someone who had direct knowledge of the occurrence.

Such a document is viewed as much more reliable than a document generated several years later, when the individual's memory of the event has become clouded by the passage of time, and may have been influenced by what others have said or written about the event.

Consider, for example, that your great-grandmother, now age 95 and in residential care due to dementia, wrote in her memoirs (prepared when she was aqe 90) that she had a brother, named John Albert, who died fighting in World War II.

When you locate his death record, you note that it establishes that John Albert had the same parents as your great-grandmother. However, it indicates that he died in 1960, of heart failure, at the address that other information indicates he had lived at for 40 years.

Applying the evidence standards, the death record was prepared at the time of the death, partly by the attending physician, and partly by the informant, usually a family member.

Your great-grandmother's memoirs, however, have been prepared about 20 years after the death occurred, at a time when the state of her memory, given her subsequent medical difficulties, may have been questionable.

In this case, the more reliable document, therefore, is the death record.

Scales of Justice - Weighing the Evidence
Wikimedia Commons

Using the language of evidence standards in genealogy, a document generated at or around the time of the occurrence of the event is considered a primary source.

An example of this would be a birth record, in which someone - usually the father or mother of the child - completes a form and sends it to the authorities to register the child's birth.

Generally speaking, one can assume that the child's parents will know the date of birth, where it occurred, and all of the surrounding circumstances.

Similarly, a marriage or death registration is considered a primary source document, as the person completing the paperwork generally is familiar with the parties in question, and knows the date on which the event occurred.

Often, it was the vicar who performed the marriage ceremony or funeral service who entered the information in the parish register. Similarly, individuals who had direct knowledge of the marriage or the death of an individual are presumed to have filed the necessary documents under the civil registration system.

A census record is considered a primary source document (assuming that one of the parents of the children is providing the information to the census taker), but is given slightly less 'weight', or credence, than a birth registration or christening record in establishing year of birth.

Why? Because it is recording a person's age, and other things about the person, many years after the event, even though the person recording it may have had direct knowledge of the event recorded on the census records. For example, as recorded in my page UK Census: an Introduction, many women were noted to lie about their age on the census.

In terms of evidence standards, then, a census document is not as reliable as some other primary source documents, given these inherent difficulties.

Examples of primary sources which relate directly to an ancestor would be:

  • church registers of christenings, marriages, and deaths
  • civil registrations (birth, marriage, death)
  • wills and estate files
  • ship passenger lists / manifests
  • military records
  • immigration papers

All other documents (i.e., those not prepared on or close to the date of the event, by persons having direct knowledge of it) are secondary sources of information. This includes:

  • records of an event prepared well after its occurrence, such as late filings of birth registrations in the Maritime provinces in Canada;
  • records made by someone without first-hand knowledge of an event. This would include journalists covering a disaster, and writing articles about what happened, based on what people told them. It would also include published genealogies, as these are prepared many years after the fact, by persons who were not there when the events being described occurred;
  • copies, transcriptions, or abstracts of original records. This would include all documents and their transcriptions on family history websites, and all documents on microfilm; and
  • newspaper obituaries. Although presumably written by a family member, the information has been transcribed for publication, which opens it up to errors.

Evidence standards indicate that these records, having been transcribed, produced many years after the fact, and/or subjected to any other circumstance which could allow errors to creep in which were not in the original record, should be considered, but should be viewed as less reliable than the primary-source documents described above.

Applying the 'evidence standards' terminology to the example with the great-grandmother's memoirs, above, the death record for her brother would be considered primary evidence, since it was recorded shortly after the death occurred.

Great-grandma's memoirs, however, would be secondary evidence, as they were recorded many years after the event occurred. Also, her subsequent dementia within a relatively short time period after her memoirs were written serves to place a question mark over their reliability.

Evidence Standards: Direct versus Indirect Evidence

Evidence standards also indicate that, before looking at circumstantial, or indirect, evidence, a family historian must look for direct evidence of the occurrence of an event.

Primary source documents for which there is no evidence to the contrary are considered direct evidence, as they establish name (the name(s) of the person(s) involved), date (when the event occurred), and place (where the event occurred.)

A baptismal record in a parish church register is direct evidence. So is a birth registration, once the civil registration system came into being. Other direct evidence documents are as listed above, under 'primary source documents'.

However, as we all discover fairly early on in our family tree research, there is seldom agreement between or among all of the documents with respect to the date or the location of different events in a person's life.

Also, many primary records have been lost to fire, flooding, mold and mildew, and so on. The records that are available with respect to a particular ancestor therefore will vary considerably, depending on where s/he lived, and many other factors.

When direct evidence is not available, or when the direct evidence yields conflicting information, it is necessary to broaden your search.

While the documents you find may not provide direct documentation of what you are looking for on their own, when put together as a whole, they may provide enough evidence that an argument can be made about the genealogical event you are attempting to prove, and any evidence pointing in another direction can be discounted as being in error. This is called indirect evidence.

Evidence Standards: An Example of Indirect Evidence

Let's put the above 'evidence standards' terminology (direct versus indirect evidence) in context.

In one case, I was looking for the birth record or a christening record for William Henry Fox, born September 6, 1874. The family information that I had suggested that his mother, Marion James, might not have been married when she had him.

I was also told that Marian James had married, at some point, a man named Joseph Clark, and that her child had been known as Joey Clark Jr. She had told her son in his teen years that his 'real name' was William Henry Fox, the name that he used for the rest of his life.

I discovered early on in my genealogy research that when a child was illegitimate, s/he would be registered under the mother's surname. I therefore searched both for a William Henry Fox and for a William Henry James, with his birth date, on a number of different genealogy databases, again to no avail.

As there were no primary documents which would firmly establish William Henry's birth, I broadened my search, in accordance with the evidence standards.

The online database provided the following record as somewhat similar in content:

Christening Record - Joseph Henry James

If you look in the bottom left corner, you will see that it gives "1875 Mar 14th" as the christening date, and then gives a birth date of September 6th, 1874. That matches. The mother's name is Marian James. That also matches.

However, the parents are listed as 'William and Marian James', and William's occupation is listed as 'Traveller'. This implies that William and Marian James were married. Also, the child was christened as 'Joseph Henry James', which does not match 'William Henry'. It does, however, fit with him being known later as "Joey Clark Junior".

That record, standing on its own, appears to have too many inconsistencies with the information I was given to be the right document.

However, the record immediately above the James record is for a Baker baby. Note that the address and the date of christening are the same for both babies. Look at the names of the parents: Richard George Baker and Elizabeth Baker.

Now, what about the marriage record for Marian James? What does it show?

Marriage Record - Marian James

Here, we see that Marian married Joseph Clark on May 31, 1876. She states she was a spinster. So, if this is the same Marion James, she was not married when she had her son in 1874. Look at the names of the witnesses: Richard George Baker and Elizabeth Baker.

The names of the witnesses are the same as those in the christening record, but Baker is a common surname. Some additional genealogy research revealed that Richard George Baker was the son of Joseph Clark's sister.

Since the names of the marriage witnesses are the same as the Baker parents whose baby was christened the same day as Marian's; there is a blood relationship between Richard George Baker and Joseph Clark who married Marian James; and Marian James was living with Richard George and Elizabeth Baker at the time of Joseph Henry's christening, it is reasonable to conclude that the Marian James in the christening record and the Marian James in the marriage record are most likely the same person.

Keep in mind that in this time period, the care of illegitimate children whose father was unknown fell to the parish poor relief. Women found 'with child' in these circumstances were interrogated, sometimes several times, by the parish council, to try to find out the name of the father, so that he could be induced to take financial responsibility for his child. (See my webpage on Poor Laws for further information).

It seems that this practice, which Marian may have endured during her pregnancy, could be the explanation for providing the name of a fictitious husband on the christening record.

Listing him as a "traveller" (either a gypsy, or a travelling salesman, in today's world) would provide an explanation as to why the father was not present at the christening, and therefore avoid any further questioning by the minister/vicar. (As the christening occurred six months after the birth, it is not clear that it took place at the parish in which Marian was resident during her pregnancy.)

Putting those bits and pieces together, then, along with the background information about societal practices in that time period, we can make a convincing argument that we have found the christening record for William Henry Fox.

While the documents involved all are, in their own right, primary documents, the argument is based on indirect evidence, as the names on the James christening document are not entirely consistent with the other evidence.

We can conclude that it is more likely than not that William Henry was born on September 6, 1874, to Marian James; that he was christened as Joseph Henry James; that his mother was single when she had him; that Marian was living with Richard and Elizabeth Baker at the time of the christening, and they were witnesses to her marriage to Richard Baker's uncle, Joseph Clark; and that William James the traveller was a fictitious husband created to avoid probing questions from the vicar about Marian's marital status.

A viable explanation has been provided for the fictitious husband, and the other bits and pieces together all provide support for the theory that this is William Henry's birth record.

In 'legalese' regarding evidence standards (which has been borrowed, in this instance, by the genealogy community), I would say that the preponderance of evidence, or the greater weight of evidence in this example, when considered as a whole, and when placed in the context of the social norms of the day, points to this christening record being that of William Henry Fox.

What does the 'greater weight of evidence' mean? Brenda Dougall Merriman defines it nicely in her booklet, About Genealogical Standards of Evidence: A Guide for Genealogists, Toronto, The Ontario Genealogical Society, 1997, as follows:

Greater weight of evidence means that your collected evidence amounts to a reasoned genealogical conclusion, outweighing any conflicting information or dubious sources. If there is opposing information, you should be able to argue successfully that the source, or the data, is erroneous. You will not have a preponderance of evidence if there is one piece of information pointing reasonably to a different conclusion.


I hope that this discussion will be of assistance to you in sorting through conflicting evidence, and in deciding whether a particular document relates to your ancestor. Applying the evidence standards to genealogy problems should help you to decide which documents are more reliable than others.

Ask yourself who prepared the document, and when. If it was prepared around the time of the event's occurrence, by someone who was there, and therefore had direct knowledge of the event, evidence standards indicate that that document should be given more 'weight' than a document which was prepared many years after the event.

If there is a discrepancy in the documentary evidence, see if there is a reasonable explanation which could explain which part of the evidence is in error. This involves the application of the evidence standards, in the use of 'indirect' evidence to allow you to form a reasonable genealogical argument.

That should help to sort through the documentation, and allow you to provide a convincing argument with respect to the paperwork that you do have.

All the best in applying the above evidence standards in sifting through the documentation!

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