This entry is part 4 of 11 in the series Bust Your Brick Wall Challenge

Now that we’ve defined our brick wall and created a timeline, the next step in the Busting Your Brick Wall Challenge will be to evaluate all of the evidence that we have collected about our family so far. Depending on how much information you’ve collected, this step could take just a short time or quite a long time but revisiting and evaluating the validity of what you think you already know is critical. It is likely that some of your evidence has been in your files for a long time and taking fresh look at it might suggest new clues that you missed the first time around, highlight the need for further research, reveal unsubstantiated assumptions, or possibly even reveal that you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere in your journey.

Use the Timeline

Start with the first event on the timeline you created in step two and take a fresh look at the evidence associated with the event and the sources you used to document the event. As you work through your analysis, document your thoughts, reasoning and analysis each step of the way. Make notes about records you might need to follow up on later, but don’t get distracted in new research. This step is about looking at the evidence you have already collected about your family.

Follow the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS)

As you work through each event in your timeline and the evidence and sources you have to support those facts, use the five steps of the Genealogical Proof Standard to make sure that the evidence supports your event, your research was thorough and that your conclusions are valid.

  1. Did you conduct a reasonably exhaustive search?
  2. Did you completely and accurately cite your sources?
  3. Did you analyze and correlate the collected information?
  4. Did you resolve conflicting evidence?
  5. Did you present a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion?

If you have never used the GPS in your research before, you might want to read through my post about using the GPS to avoid confirmation bias where I walk through an example from my own research that evaluates the evidence I had for the birth of my great-grandfather.

Research the Record Type

As you evaluate the events in your timeline, take the time to go beyond the records themselves and take a look at why and how the records were created in the first place. Although we sometimes imagine otherwise, the documents we reference, cite and file in our family trees were not created for the benefit of future genealogists but rather because of a law, custom or requirement in our ancestor’s time and place. Research the record type to find out all you can about its creation.

As an example, if you are looking at a birth certificate, when did registration of births begin in your ancestor’s district? Was registration mandatory? What were the requirements for birth registration at the time the record was created? What information is included on the record and how likely is it to be correct? Was there any reason why the information might be false?

Did You Miss Anything?

As you look at each record, carefully examine every piece of information on it. Sometimes in the excitement of finding a new piece of evidence about our family, we miss something that the record has to tell us. Other times, we found the document early on in our research when we were less experienced and we didn’t recognise the significance of something on the record. Finally, as we learn more about our family, the information that the document contains might have more relevance when we look at it in the context of what we’ve discovered since the first time we viewed it.

Find the Original

Indexes and transcriptions are finding aids and should never be a substitute for the original record. If the evidence that you have is supported by an entry you found in an index or from an abstract or transcription, make a note to track down the original record. Not only could there be an error in the copy, but there could also be information in the original that was not included in the index, abstract or transcription.

Work the Geography

Many of the records we find for our families mention the place where an event occurred. Find that place on a map from the time period of your ancestors. Mentally walk the streets on the map to get to know your ancestors’ neighbourhood. Find out what was nearby. Where were the nearest churches, schools, hospitals, shops and so on. Were there businesses in the area? As you move from one event to the next, plot each of them on the map. How far apart were the places that each event took place? What was the area like in your ancestor’s time? What can you learn from the geography?

Mistakes Happen

The further we travel back in time, the more likely it is that we will find spelling variations in names and places, even within the same document. Our ancestors might not have known how to read and write and the document might have been completed by an official or even a neighbour who simply wrote what they heard. Or it might simply be a mistake. There was no spell check back in our ancestor’s time to let them know if they missed or transposed letters. The document might have been created in a rush and the different spelling might just be the result of carelessness.

Similarly, dates could be remembered imperfectly and recorded incorrectly. Can you correctly state the birth date of everyone in your family? Have you ever phoned to wish someone a happy birthday only to find out that you were out by one day? Have you ever gotten the age of your children or your parents wrong? Our ancestors were no different.

Everyone Lies

There are many reasons why information might not agree on all the documents you have in your family tree and one of them is that people sometimes lie. Your ancestors might have bent the truth on a document for many reasons. Our female ancestors sometimes became mysteriously younger from one census to the next. Marriage documents might state that both the bride and groom were of the age of consent when in reality, one of them was underage. Your ancestor might have given the wrong birth date on a birth certificate to avoid paying a fine for late registration. For a great roundup of reasons why our ancestors might have been ‘economical with the truth’ on various documents, listen to the National Archives UK Podcast by Audrey Collins called ‘Sex, Lies and Civil Registration.’

Cite Your Sources

If any of the records in your collection of evidence are missing source citations, now is the time to rectify that omission. Always, always cite your sources! We create source citations so others can follow in our footsteps to find original records and so they can evaluate the validity of our conclusions and the strength of our sources. If you are new to source citation, a great resource is Elizabeth Shown Mill’s book called Evidence Explained that walks you through the appropriate formats for every type of record that you could imagine.

Evaluating the Evidence on My Brick Wall

Checkout my first post on evaluating the evidence for my Brickwall Browns and then work your way through the next six posts as I work my way through the Brown timeline.

Brick Wall Challenge
Write a post about evaluating your evidence and share a link in the comments below.
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