Dealing with Contradictory Evidence

Help for evaluating genealogy records which have facts that contradict each other

One day I was helping a woman who was just beginning her research to extend her genealogy. She began finding records on her ancestor and almost immediately found a death record that gave her ancestor's parents. The record was interesting because the parents on the record were different than those she had on her inherited pedigree. A little more research showed another death record with an entirely different set of parents. At this point, she was ready to quit her research cold and go back to watching TV or whatever. Contradictory evidence can be overwhelming.

In this situation, there are really several possibilities. One or the other of the two sets of parents could be the correct set. But both could be wrong and both could be right as well. Let's suppose that the patron had kept searching and found one more piece of evidence agreeing with one or the other of the first entries? Is that additional evidence the tie-breaker and the agreement automatically wins? Not really. All evidence has to be evaluated on the basis of a series of considerations. You must evaluate both the record and the source of the information. One key point about this situation is the fact that both of these records found by the patron were extracted records, essentially indexes. So neither of the records was in anyway conclusive of the facts because they were not the original source of information.

All records need to be evaluated as to their relevance, their category and their format. A record is relevant if it was created for the purpose of preserving the information you are seeking. For example, a census record is relevant to the issue of where people lived because that is the reason the record was created. Records are found in categories based on the type of information preserved. The format of the record is also important because it determines whether or not the information is accessible.

So what is the best way to deal with contradictory evidence? From the standpoint of experience, the simple answer is the one I gave to this woman: keep looking. What she needed to do was more research to find additional information about the family that would likely settle the controversy of the contradictory parent information. There was always the possibility that we wouldn't find any more information than we already had found. It was my opinion that the probability of running out of sources was pretty slim.

All instances of contradictory evidence are merely an invitation to further research. It is almost inevitable that you will encounter contradictions. How you handle those contradictions will determine the ultimate validity of your research.

As to the record itself, you need to evaluate the following:

  • the origin of the information
  • the facts given in the record
  • the events described
  • whether or not the evidence is direct or indirect

The FamilySearch Research Wiki suggests asking the following set of questions or other similar questions:

  • When and where was the record created?
  • Who created the record?
  • Why was the record created?
  • Who provided the information for the record?
  • How was the information recorded?
  • How was the record preserved?
  • What kind of information is missing or incomplete in the record?
  • Are there any other records that are usually associated with this record?
  • Which records came just before and after this record and would they give further information?
  • Is the record part of a series of records that may contain more information about the family?
  • Where are other associated records located?
  • How reliable is the information contained in the record?
  • What other information is suggested by the record but missing?

Further research can often reveal the information you are hoping to find.

Written by James L. Tanner. Used with permission.

Need help finding more records? Try our genealogical records directory which has more than 1.3 million sources to help you more easily locate the available records.

Related Topics