How do I use the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS)?

As genealogists we may understand the point of the GPS but not “get” how to use it.  I thought it might be helpful to put down in writing how I use it in the writing of lineages and even data entry.

Think for a minute about some of the dilemma’s you have had in deciding whether you have the “right” John Smith to be able to say it is “your” John Smith.  Contrary to science, to prove some relationship in genealogy relies on a sliding scale of confidence; in genealogy, there is rarely absolute “proof”.  If you have done the DNA testing (y-DNA, mtDNA and/or autosomal), you may be 99% confident or “reasonably certain” that the parents who raised you were also your biological parents.  Without testing, you can only have that level of confidence that the parents who raised you are your biological mother and father.  For example, your confidence level on your father is based on 1.) your mother’s word 2.) consistent circumstances that surround the birth, 3.) an evidence of marriage, etc.  Added together the evidence may add up to “certainty” but not to the level of a scientific-based test.

The words “possible,” “probable” and “certain” are the words advanced by ESM in the NGS Quarterly article ” Working with Historical Evidence,” of September 1999 as the rating scale for genealogy purposes.

An example: a relationship between a child is mentioned in a probate record as the son of the deceased.  What is the level of surety of the relationship in this case?  Not high.  Mothers and fathers called adopted/foster children “son” and “daughter” all the time.  Your surety in this case should be that it is “possible”.  To raise the confidence rating to “probable” or “certain,” you need to obtain more information where you can extract a greater amount of evidence.  If you find consistent information, your confidence level of this relationship grows to “probable” and maybe even “certain”.

Another example: Jens Torkelson Dahle.  I have only one source, a rootsweb entry, that says he was from Leikanger parish in Norway.  Nothing else points to that parish but importantly, nothing points against it either.  The good news:  a Jens Torkelson was born in Leikanger parish at the right time.  So let’s look to guidance from the GPS for what I should do:

  1. Conduct a reasonably exhaustive search:  There are many documents (US based) that state Jens Torkelson Dahle is from Norway but none point to his parish.  County histories (2), military records, naturalization papers, death certificate, census info are mute.  I even wrote an e-mail to the “Jim Larson” who posted the information in 2005 to see if he would respond and I asked my client if she knew Jim.  I came up negative on both.  While there may be other documents out there, I do believe I have done a “reasonably exhaustive search”.
  2. Collect and include a complete citation of each item we use:  (somehow this seems out of place)  I am prepared to do this as soon as I find something I can use, besides Jim Larson’s rootsweb posting!
  3. Analyze and correlate information:  In my experience this analysis is often done using a table.  For example, a comparison of what I know about Jens T. Dahle in the USA can be compared to the information about Jens Torkelson in Norway (birth, immigration etc) and see what the level of correlation is.  It is important to specifically look for items that are in conflict.
  4. Resolve any conflicts:  This may take the form of birth years that differ, etc.
  5. Reach a sound, coherent conclusion that is written cogently.:  While this will remain to be seen, the result of this item is to make sure you do not let the audience draw the conclusion but rather you write the concluding remarks so there is no ambiguity of your intent.  The audience then may disagree with your conclusion or new information could be found that obviate the conclusion later but those events are both tolerated within this approach to “proof”.

None of this should be interpreted to imply that there are no conflicts.  In my reading of the NGS Quarterly, conflicts occur, are researched, analyzed and commented upon.  You might check some of these out for examples.  In that same September Quarterly noted above, there are four articles that are illustrative of different types of genealogical issues.

So, my recommendation is that you analyze each relationship carefully.  We all know that “feeling” we get when we just “know” that the guy we are seeing in the record is “our” guy, but the GPS forces us to put into narrative all the clues we have gathered and to analyze their veracity.   I will, probably in the next post or shortly after, share the table comparing the Jens Torkelson in Leikanger parish to “my” USA Jens Dahle.  Beware!  I may not be able to paste in a table into this reader, so it may not look like much of a table when I am done.  I’ll keep you posted.

Happy Hunting! Your thoughts and comments are always welcomed.  And remember, I will be changing the URL of this blog.  You will probably have to sign up again.


What I have done since the last post:  finished all this quarter’s assignments, talked with a friend of mine to see if I could do an oral history on her father (88) who is visiting this Christmas.  (This is an assignment for the class next quarter.)  Participated in a tour of the genealogical collections at the Seattle Public Library conducted by the head genealogy librarian.


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