D. Joshua Taylor gave an excellent lecture at RootsTech about how to resolve conflicts in genealogy research. He said that if you are not finding any conflicts in your genealogy research, you may not be doing reasonably exhaustive research. During his lecture, he reviewed 8 methods for resolving conflicts, and gave several helpful examples. It was a great lecture. I’m sharing the first few steps that he suggested.
Bio: D. Joshua Taylor is the President of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, host of Genealogy Roadshow (PBS), and a frequent speaker on family history at venues across the globe.
Lecture Description: Every genealogist comes across conflicting names or dates in their research. This session is ideal for those seeking guidelines to resolve these conflicts. We will examine conflicts appearing in online family trees and original records (using examples that combine both instances). This session teaches the fundamentals of the Genealogical Proof Standard and the importance of citations as methods to demonstrate resolutions to conflicting evidence in a practical and approachable manner.
1. Follow the most logical path
Understand the context of our ancestors lives. Is it logical that the farmer’s daughter married the nobleman? Or the son of the farmer next door? Follow the most logical option.
Would an ancestor suddenly move far away, have a child, then move back right after? Likely not. If you look at many online trees, you’ll see these types of faulty conclusions often. Remember to follow the most logical path.
2. Understand the source
Joshua showed a page from The History of Susquehanna County, which he analyzed and decided that a statement about when an ancestor moved away from the county was incorrect by one year. He can’t just say that the county is incorrect, he says “we need to understand the source and why it was created. Every source has a bias. It could be a negative or positive bias.”
The county history was published 50 years after the fact that was possibly incorrect. It was compiled by people who lived in the county, not by those who moved away.
Additionally, don’t think that because someone’s last name is spelled differently on a record in 1804, it couldn’t belong to your ancestor. Spelling wasn’t standardized in that time period.
3. Always find the original
It’s important to find the original record, or image of one, but always recognize that there could be a more original record. For example, a marriage register could have been copied from a bunch of marriage licenses. Also, understand who the informant was and if they could have given firsthand information or secondhand information.
Josh showed an example of the difference between a handwritten authored microfilmed family group document in black and white, and the original record, in color. The original record showed that some parts of the document were written in a different color ink, later, to show the sources of the information. To understand that these were written later in a different color helps understand the source.
He gave another example about visiting the actual cemetery and seeing who is buried near each other, which you can’t always do with FindaGrave.
4. Test a a conclusion and attempt to prove or disprove it
What is proof? Document the negative results. Find any evidence that might disprove your theory.
You should separate men of the same name. Identify characteristics of individuals so you can identify each one as separate. Develop individual profiles.
Something Josh wishes he had known when he just started: a single record rarely exists to answer you research question. Instead you might have to eliminate all other possibilities in order to refine and test a theory. Look for a series of records that allow you to test your theory.
Josh talked about four additional methods:
-look for patterns, inconsistencies, and other discrepancies
-write it up and analyze
-clearly outline and compare the facts
-then accept a non-resolution if necessary
Josh said if you want to see some examples of conflicts in genealogy, try looking at old Revolutionary War pension files for people with the same name and from the same area. Many times both men would apply for a pension, and the government would reject both because they couldn’t clearly identify which man was which. Then they would go through the process of interviewing neighbors and gathering witness statements to determine who is who.