Proving a Pedigree in England

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Proof in genealogy, it has to be said, is not much more than the highest degree of confidence that the best available sources indicate certain facts about the relationships of the people under consideration. It follows, therefore, that the degree of confidence that can be placed in a pedigree must depend on knowledge of its compiler’s methods and, most importantly, of the sources used.

Aims[edit | edit source]

It goes without saying that it is important at all times and as far as is possible to seek for the verifiable ‘truth’ and to strive for accuracy. It has to be recognised, however, that the whole ‘truth’ about any family, indeed about any one person, is not knowable. It is, therefore, equally important to keep an open mind and not to think, “I know all about that”, so that further discoveries may always be made. If contradictory evidence is found or there are differing views about the same fact or person, both must be recorded together with the sources from which they derive.

Sources[edit | edit source]

All written sources depend in the first instance on the original writer’s prejudices, interests, experience and motives as well as on their proximity in space and time to the events that they record.

Such written sources then further depend on the expertise and accuracy of the copier and indexer. In addition, if the sources have been microfilmed, microfiched or scanned then pages may have been accidentally omitted.

Because so much compiled ‘instant ancestry’, particularly on the internet, is now sadly discredited, the National Genealogical Society (USA) recommends: ‘Seek original records, or reproduced images of them where there is reasonable assurance they have not been altered, as the basis for the research conclusions. Use compilations, communications, and published works, whether paper or electronic, primarily for their value as guides to locating the original records’[1] .

Personal knowledge[edit | edit source]

It was generally accepted in the past that people would have direct personal knowledge and could therefore state with confidence facts about their children and grandchildren and about their parents and grandparents. Such statements were accepted when pedigrees were recorded at the Visitations made by the Heralds in England and Wales between 1530 and 1686 and when pedigrees were registered at the College of Arms.

This knowledge of grandchildren and grandparents, let alone of brothers and sisters, may not, however, be accurate or complete. The details of one’s own birth always rely on the statements of others. As the Lord Chief Justice said during the Tichborne Case, ‘I don’t think a man can know when he was born’.[2] Primary evidence for all events on the pedigree is required.

Primary evidence[edit | edit source]

Primary evidence is that recorded by those directly involved and at the time of the events. It will generally be the best evidence available.

Secondary evidence[edit | edit source]

Secondary evidence is that recorded by others who were not directly involved in the event, or by those who made the record later. It may also be a copy of the primary evidence into which errors may have been introduced.

Much primary evidence is really secondary evidence because a second-hand or third-hand copy is being used. For example, the British census returns and civil registration certificates of birth, marriage and death are all copies. A family Bible may be secondary evidence if the entries in it were made many years after the events recorded.

In the final event the pedigree should rely for its basic relationships on primary evidence. Other incidental matters may, of necessity, have to rely to some extent on secondary sources.

Records proving kinship[edit | edit source]

Some primary records in themselves may prove a relationship between a parent and its child, but many have weaknesses which must also be borne in mind. These records include:

  • Inquisitions post mortem.
  • Heralds’ Visitations, though not all the children or brothers and sisters may be mentioned. Edited and printed versions may contain unreliable later additions.
  • Conveyances and leases of land.
  • Lawsuits between related parties, but beware of bias in conflicting claims.
  • Records of apprenticeship and the freedom of a company or borough.
  • School and university records, but edited and printed versions may contain unreliable later additions.
  • Wills, but not all the children may be mentioned.
  • Census returns, but relationships are to the head of the family and the wife may not be the mother of the children.

Sources that show parentage or lead directly to a place of origin are, of course, of primary importance to the genealogist. They are listed and discussed in Anthony Camp,My ancestors moved in England or Wales: how can I trace where they came from? (Society of Genealogists, London, 1994). Sources that identify an individual with a location and sources that provide vital data and/or proof of relationships form an interesting division in Joy Wade Moulton, Genealogical resources in English repositories (Hampton House, Columbus, Ohio, 1988).

Circumstantial evidence[edit | edit source]

Circumstantial evidence is evidence of facts or circumstances from which the existence (or non-existence) of a fact at issue may be inferred. It should not be relied on too heavily and no relationship should rely on it alone.

Relationship by inference may be stronger if there is a direct link between persons of the same surname through ownership of the same property, successive involvement in one trade, or membership of a guild or company, or through occupancy of the same house or property. A succession of entries of persons with the same surname in annual lists, such as are found in the Land Tax, trade or street directories, or in electoral registers, may thus be very important, indicating the date of death of a father and of the succession or coming of age of his son.

A pattern of forenames may be strong circumstantial evidence of descent or relationship, though some forenames are found so frequently as to be of little or no assistance. Remember also that most families of Drake use the surname Francis, and similarly with other famous names. It does not mean that there is a relationship.

Lack of evidence
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Evidence may be accidentally lost or destroyed but it may not have existed in the first place. Absence of evidence should, however, never be construed as purposeful destruction of evidence. One is almost certainly looking in the wrong place. Search elsewhere.

This is particularly true when attempts are being made to connect two families of the same surname and the so-called ‘link’ cannot be found. Such a link may not exist and the true ancestry will not then be found until wider searches are made.

Absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence. A nonconformist family may not appear in the parish registers. A family may be temporarily absent on the night of a census. The indexes may be incomplete or the surname may be incorrectly copied. Indexed entries may be grouped under a surname variant quite unfamiliar to the searcher. It will be important to go back to the original records at some stage and not to rely on the indexes alone.

Conflicting evidence[edit | edit source]

It is always important to keep an open mind. There was a time when some genealogists, influenced by a legalistic approach to evidence[3] advocated the deciding of relationships by ‘the preponderance of the evidence’. It is now generally agreed, however, that this should never be done unless there is a significant body of evidence, all possible documents have been consulted and all point in the same direction. If there is a conflict in the evidence both accounts must be recorded. In any case, it is doubtful that any genealogist working amongst English records could truthfully say that all the possible documents had been consulted.

Negative evidence[edit | edit source]

Negative evidence is sometimes almost as important as positive evidence. However, once more the breadth of sources consulted, the area and the period, should all be recorded before any statement is made.

There are dangers, however, in accepting an entry just because it is the only one in the right area at the right time and fits the known facts. Further connecting evidence should be sought.

In such cases it is necessary to attempt to disprove the relationship as well as to prove it. The efforts to do both should also be recorded. If a possible baptism is found for a given ancestor the possible burial of that child should always immediately be sought for, as well as that child’s later possible marriage to someone other than the known wife. The evidence of the wills of the presumed parents and of the child’s presumed brothers and sisters must be investigated. The names of the witnesses at the first ancestral marriage will need to be studied with care.

Note taking
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The strength or weakness of a pedigree will depend to a large extent on the quality of the work on which it is based and of the notes made at that time.

It is well to search wide periods in the records being considered. The periods covered and gaps seen should always be carefully noted. If the entries are selected by using an index alone, that needs to be recorded.

Never select just those entries that appear to be relevant to the search. Extract, in full, all the entries of the surname that is being sought from the source that is being consulted. Some will probably be relations and the stray, apparently unrelated, entries (often in the burials) may contain highly important clues that will enable the search to be continued elsewhere.

Write up the results
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Write up the notes shortly after making the searches and query any uncertain points whilst they are still fresh in the mind. Always check any copies that are made of the notes against the originals.

Try to write up the results as the search proceeds, perhaps in an indented narrative form or in a genealogy program that requires note of the evidence for each record entered. At the same time, draw out a simple drop-line chart pedigree of the family and apply basic tests to make sure that the ages at marriage and at the births of children are possible. Note any gaps in the run of children for possible baptisms elsewhere, and note any duplication of names that may be explained by burials of children. A wife who has children over a very long period or has two birth places in different census returns may be two women with the same forename.

Beware 'age'
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Beware any statement of age. Ages on marriage certificates are often adjusted for all kinds of reasons and ages on death certificates or in burial entries are frequently incorrect. Samuel Birch, an eminent physician, was buried in Westminster Abbey in 1719. The funeral book says that he was 72, an age apparently taken from his coffin plate, but a newspaper of the day, The Original Weekly Journal, says that he was 96.

In England a date of birth ‘on a tombstone, his obituary, and a biography of his daughter’ would not be ‘direct evidence of his date of birth’[4].These accounts, which may well all derive from the same incorrect source, are secondary evidence, and need to be checked against some primary source contemporary with the birth. Dead people cannot state their ages and even when alive have many reasons for being careless or economical with the truth.

Two sources
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Do not neglect one source of information because evidence has already been obtained from another. For example, check all the available census returns during the lifetime of the ancestor. Look for a baptism even if the birth certificate after 1837 has been obtained; many a legitimate birth turns into an illegitimate baptism when the parish registers are searched. Always try to search the Bishop’s Transcripts as well as the parish registers, but particularly in cases of difficulty. Indeed, find, if it is at all possible, two sources for each statement on the pedigree.

Kill them off 
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Because genealogists work, as they search backwards in time, from the baptisms of their ancestors to the marriages of their parents and then to their baptisms, many pedigrees include people who seem never to have died.

It is highly important to ‘kill everybody off’ and to find their deaths and/or burials. In this way many presumed ancestors are found to have died as children. A death or burial may lead to additional knowledge of the occupation of the deceased, the place of residence of relatives who were informants, and provide some indication of age and thus of date of birth or baptism. If the death of a widow cannot be found she is likely to have married again.

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Think ‘beyond the box’ and try speculative searches in other records that relate to the place and period in question. Once again, try to keep an open mind. Do not allow your searches to be constrained by the assumed religious beliefs or the perceived social position of the family traced. Of course take family traditions into consideration but do not allow them to dictate and restrict any normal research procedures. It is quite possible for a family tradition not to contain any element of truth at all, in spite of what is continually said to the contrary.

If an appropriate entry is found in a particular source it is often wise to go on searching. It is best, for instance, to continue a search in the census to cover the whole of the area or parish for other people of the same name (and indeed, in difficult cases, for other people who came from the same place and may be related). In the same way, the records of neighbouring parishes may need to be searched, the registers of other religious congregations, the wills of other people in the parish, and so on.

Do it all again
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After a reasonable period it is wise to repeat all the initial searches again, particularly those done when the search was first started. With no experience at all we rushed from one source to another in an effort to go back as far as possible in as little time as may be. Only by searching the sources again does one see all the things missed at that time. We then begin also to notice things which had gained relevance as the pedigree developed and which were not known when the search started. In difficult cases it is sometimes necessary to repeat these procedures two or three times over a period, going over the sources and checking all the notes again.

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Record and show your evidence at all times. Only then can someone with more time in the future continue your work or judge its reliability. Place the compiled results in appropriate libraries and repositories and welcome critical comment. Someone will soon say if they think your facts are wrong, but do not necessarily accept their statements unless they too cite their evidence.

See also the articles Six Short Lessions in Family History in England and Dead End or New Beginning?

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 'Standards for sound genealogical research' in National Genealogical Society Quarterly, vol. 86, no. 1 (March 1998) page 50.
  2. Douglas Woodruff, The Tichborne claimant (1957) page 204.
  3. as provided by Noel C. Stevenson, Genealogical evidence: a guide to the standard proof relating to pedigrees, ancestry, heirship and family history (Laguna Hills, California: Aegean Press, 1979, 1989).
  4. as provided by Professor Thomas Jones in his article 'A conceptual model of genealogical evidence' in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, vol. 86, no. 1 (March 1998) pages 5-18.

[edit | edit source]

Richard S. Lackey, Cite your sources: a manual for documenting family histories and genealogical records (Jackson, Mississippi: University of Mississippi, 1985) [FHL 929.1 L118c].
Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence! Citation & analysis for the family historian (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1997) [ FHL 929.1 M625e].
Brenda Dougall Merriman, 'About genealogical standards of evidence: a guide for Canadian genealogists(Toronto: Ontario Genealogical Society, 2nd ed. 2004) [FHL 971 D27mb].
Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence explained: citing history sources from artifacts to cyberspace (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2nd ed. 2009) [FHL 929.1 M625ee].

Acknowledgement[edit | edit source]

Adapted with permission from Anthony Camp’s article ‘Proving a pedigree’ in Family Tree Magazine (UK;, vol. 15, no. 10 (August 1999) 4-5.