Book Review: Genealogy Evidence by Noel C. Stevenson,

Gen Evid bk StevensonStevenson, Noel C. Genealogical Evidence: A Guide to the Standard of Proof Relating to Pedigrees, Ancestry, Heirship and Family History. Laguna Hills, California: Aegean Park Press, 1979, revised 1989.

What can you learn from a book written almost 35 years ago and revised 25 years ago? A lot!

To state the case most simply: if you are working on your portfolio, you need to have this book close by. Let me explain why.

Noel C. Stevenson, J.D., FASG  is one of genealogy’s icons of the most recent past generation, serving as President of the American Society of Genealogists from 1985-1986. [1]  His book, Genealogical Evidence is recognized as a pioneer in defining a common genealogical vocabulary, constructing a standard for source analysis and providing guidance for assessment of evidence.[2]  Thus, in the genealogy of genealogy, this book is an “ancestor” to Evidence Explained  by Elisabeth Shown Mills and Mastering Genealogical Proof by Tom Jones. [3]

The content covers common genealogical problems and establishes guidelines for their assessment.  For example, The first chapter on “Paternity, Maternity, Legitimacy and Illegitimacy” discusses “Age and Paternity” and “Age and Maternity,” where Stevenson discusses the ages one can expect parents to be within and ones that are outside that realm.  When you are looking at the age of the father at 16 and the age of the mother at 13 in your case study, what do you say about the likelihood of that happening? Stevenson will give you guidance and his work is a respected source. Is your case study a question of identity?  If so, Stevenson has an entire chapter on that topic.

Stevenson then breaks down records into two groups — public and unofficial records, the latter being everything that isn’t public, such as bibles, church records, tombstones etc., and covers types of records within those two broad categories. With each source type he begins with a short history of the development, and then describes their relative accuracy. Another great inclusion is the list at the end of these chapters which describe the various locations one can obtain the information desired if the single source does not exist.  The list for location of evidence of marriage, considered a public record, is 21 items long.  These other locations for marriage records may assist you in breaking down some of your brick walls or verify that you have truly completed your “exhaustive research.”

As a lawyer, his narrative concerning court records is especially note worthy. Stevenson brings a depth of understanding of the types of courts, their history and the records found there. He covers the types of marriages and the legality by state of common law marriages.  In this era, laws of marriage are changing so rapidly this list may be outdated, but it gives you a place to start.  This section (and others) are laced with examples which focus the reader on the analysis and the conclusions that can be drawn from the court records.  He even discusses, with examples, false pedigrees and some of the genealogical hoaxes that have been committed and still exist today.

Val Greenwood’s book, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, another iconic book, looks at source types; Stevenson’s addresses source types but then investigates each source type for the type of information it might contain and discusses the inherent validity of the evidence you may find within that source type. It is true that Stevenson uses terms like “circumstantial evidence” which now are dated, but this does not obviate the quality of the contents within.

If you are “on the clock,” this book will provide you with a basis for assumptions, will give you a basis for analyzing your sources and give you hints as to other locations to find records which make for a more complete research effort.  In addition, his citations may lead you to other documents, articles and books to assist you in solving a particular problem.  However, this is not a “brick wall problem solvers guide” as it is not focused on a particular problem you might have but rather the book provides us with a road map for our every day genealogical assessment.

Happy Hunting!


What I have done since the last posting:  I made my research plan for the holiday weekend.  I also listened to Ron Arons Legacy Webinar on mapping.  He did a nice job and Geoff Rasmussen, the host, gave my webinar presentation on fire insurance maps (scheduled for April) a shout out to all the live listeners.

[1] American Society of Genealogists, “Past Officers” ( : accessed 25 November 2015).

[2] John (surname not given), “Elements of Genealogical Analysis,” Our Blog (Allen County (IN) Public Library Genealogy Center), blog,  13 November 2014 ( : accessed 25 November 2015).

[3] Do I really need to provide a citation for you?

GPS Element #5: Writing your conclusions

typewriterThis is the third of a series of articles about the Genealogical Proof Standard. [1]  The elements are not being published in numerical order, primarily because I had presentations to make on some of the elements, and I completed those first.  You can read about GPS #1 (thorough search), GPS #2 (source citations)  and  GPS #3 (analysis and correlation), by clicking on the links.  I haven’t yet published GPS #4 (resolving conflicting evidence).

My ProGen class is in its second month of writing their proof arguments. Proof arguments are the basis of the BCG case study and components of the Kinship Determination Project, both requirements for certification.  Proof arguments are a type of genealogical writing that describes, in a scholarly way, our findings to a question.

I won’t dwell on the definition of a proof argument, you can find explanations and examples in a variety of places, including the BCG website ( Almost every article in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly is a proof argument.

As our class discussed their first drafts, I started to see some trends in my writing as well as that of my cohort. These observations may reflect a single paper or sometimes the issue is systemic.  One thing remains clear–these are my personal comments.  Each of the items below is composed of 1.) what I see/experience, 2.) any documentation or analysis which clarifies the issue and finally 3.) a statement of how I plan to approach the issue in my own writing.  What you select to incorporate into your proof arguments is a personal decision; your choice may be different than mine.

I pause here for a minute to thank Karen Stanbury, my facilitator for Mastering Genealogical Proof (MGP) by Tom Jones.[2] She made the course, taken in late 2013, rigorous and demanding. I utilize daily the information contained in that book and emphasized by Karen. I know that some facilitators were not as rigorous as Karen and that is their loss.

1. Research Question:  The crafting of the research question seems easy at first and then reveals itself to be surprisingly difficult. At times I was struggling with defining exactly what I was trying to “prove.”  Did I want to answer when Mary was born, or her location of birth or who were her parents?  In the end, for this assignment, I decided to focus on the parents because I had the evidence to support that question.
Analysis:  The research question is composed of two parts: a clearly defined and unique individual and a measurable interrogatory. To identify an individual who is “unique in the world,” you must supply enough known descriptors that there is only one person who could satisfy those requirements.  The interrogatory may be relationship (e.g. who are the parents of…), or an identity (e.g. Which Alonzo Fedpussle paying taxes in Whichamacallit County in 1879, was the son of Alphonso Fedpussle?) or an activity (e.g. What military service, if any, did Alonzo Fedpussle, born in 1847 in Whichamacallit County, provide in the Civil War?)  The interrogatory also needs to be measurable.  A question such as “who is John Smith?” fails on two counts.  John Smith is not unique in the world but, in addition, the interrogatory “Who was…” is not measurable; said a different way, how would you know if or when the question of “who was John Smith” had been answered?
How I plan to approach it:  I believe that I understand the concept of the unique individual but I will continue to work on the crafting of the good question.  I am hopeful that writing more PAs will result in more efficient writing.  Reading more articles will help as well.  I struggle most with research questions that are implied in the writing but not specifically stated.

2. Organization: The organization of the writing is very challenging. It’s not that I cannot organize the writing, but rather I have trouble picking the best organization for the question, the evidence and the reader.
Analysis:  I am not sure I see too much written about this.  In MGP Dr. Jones describes how the work must have a beginning, a middle and the end (I work with several people who always start conversations “in the middle.” Irritating, isn’t it?)  I think this is harder for some people than others.  Dr. Jones discusses various constructs for the argument, including single hypothesis, alternative hypotheses, building blocks and syllogisms [3]
How I plan to approach it:  My articles usually use one of these techniques as the prime organizing methodology and then within that structure some or all of the others will be utilized.  It sounds like I know what I am doing but it is still hard to pick the right structure for the evidence you have.  I’ll probably blog about this more later.

3. Inclusion/Exclusion: We want to include all we know. We worked so hard to get all that information and just because it doesn’t support the research question doesn’t mean we should eliminate it, does it? Well, yes, it does. The focus of the writing should be on the research question and all other material which does not support the thesis should be deleted. On the flip side and equally as “wrong” as too much information, is making the paper so “bare bones” that the author forces the reader to make assumptions and “leaps of faith.”  A third type of problem with writing of proof arguments is where the author writes something which “begs the question.”  In the latter, the reader is busy wondering why something wasn’t covered; just the inclusion of a brief discussion would have eliminated the alternative focus by the reader.
Analysis:  Inclusion of other information which does not directly support the question, leads the reader away from the prime focus; the author appears to have wandered off topic. The reader should also not be making assumptions because the writer has failed to include necessary evidence.  This type of writing leaves the reader with questions which interrupt the flow of the reading.
How I plan to approach it:  I actually have the problem of putting in too little information and making leaps of faith, under the guise of “isn’t it self-evident?” My writing improves if I have the opportunity to let it sit for a while before rereading.  I also write the paper and then outline it after the first draft.  I find outlining helps identify errant bits of evidence which do not support the question, but notice — I outline after I have written the draft.  If I have difficulty outlining the paper, the area of writing which needs improvement is immediately identified.

4. Proof Argument/Research Plan?: Some in the class wrote the argument as if it were a research plan. This sometimes looked more like a listing of sources which supported the query.  The author would include all the evidence in a source list/discussion but never pull it together and correlate by contrasting and comparing.  They told the story but seemed more interested in the sources than the proof.
Analysis:  The eleven points of MGP continue to guide us in the writing but everyone needs to improve on this. [4]
How I plan to approach it:  I will continue to read NGSQ and study other articles.  I admit I was amazed how much I had learned in the past two years by reading and rereading these articles.  I am a much better consumer of peer reviewed articles than I was before–it’s a bit scarey!

5. Analysis of sources: Am I the only one who doesn’t want to read about whether that will was original or derivative or the information was primary, secondary or undetermined?  The inclusion of source analysis after source analysis which is not additive to the argument makes for difficult reading.  The author has the responsibility to provide informative citations which tell the reader the viability of the source that was used; it is not necessary to do the analysis in such a visible way.  For all the analysis, the evidence could still be wrong.
Analysis: These citations should make obvious whether the author was looking at an original, derivative or authored work; using primary, secondary or undetermined information and providing direct, indirect or negative evidence.  Only when two sources conflict is it reasonable–it seems to me– to expect the author to discuss the quality of the source and then draw a conclusion.   The inclusion of that analysis can happen in one of three places– in the body of the proof, in the footnote of the proof and outside of the paper altogether. Authors who analyze every source and include their analysis in the narrative, make for difficult reading. Note the fifth bullet of the 11 in MGP, “We discuss sources to a lesser extent, because most information about sources belongs in the citations and footnotes.” [5]
How I plan on approach it:  I leave out most and sometime all references to the categories of my source, information and evidence.  I have a tendency to write about the analysis of the source only when it is in conflict, i.e. does the source analysis make one answer more appropriate than another?

6. Style of writing: Some authors wrote a portion of their article in a very familiar style- first person, present tense.
Analysis: The third bullet of the 11 points in MGP states “present-tense verbs refer to extant sources and living people….(consequently, much genealogical writing is in the past tense.) and the tenth bullet “the tone of a proof argument or summary is that of a “defense” in the academic sense.” [6]
How I plan to to approach it:  I have little difficulty using past tense fairly consistently in my writing but occasionally, a present tense verb sneaks in.  I just have to be aware of the issue and address it at the time of writing.  Generally, my writing is rather academic (read: dry) so the use of the first person does not often enter my writing.

So this was, and continues to be, a great exercise. I have written a few proof arguments now and although I cannot say I am comfortable, the efficiency of writing is better and my initial output is stronger.

Happy hunting!


What I have done since the last posting: commented on my classmates proof arguments; got the SGS newsletter out to our membership; campaigned to have our society join FGS; purchased, received and deeply skimmed Applied Genealogy by Eugene A. Stratton and Genealogical Evidence by Noel Stevenson. Both are older books but are still the go-to reference for genealogy fundamentals. Also read the ProGen assignment for next month and 4 NGSQ articles (one is related to my BCG case study, one was written by a friend, one is the Q study article for March and one is about a special schedule of the 1880 census where a great grand uncle was enumerated as he was labeled insane. More about this later—I am doing some deep research on the topic of incarceration in an insane asylum in the late 1800’s.)

[1] Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards (Nashville: Turner Publishing Company, 2014) p. 1-2.

[2] Thomas W. Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof (Arlington, VA: National Genealogical Society, 2013).

[3] Ibid, p. 88-89.

[4] Ibid, p. 90.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

What are you reading now?

I try to be a voracious reader but sometimes other things get in the way.  Recently Marian Pierre-Louis recommended a book, The Family Tree Problem Solver, in her blog, Roots & Rambles <>.  I promptly checked it out of the Seattle Public Library.  I agree; it’s a good one.

I like this book because….

  • the author is up front that this is not a beginner book and then proceeds to write to the reader in a tone which supports that statement.
  • the book focuses on common intermediate/advanced problems, such as MIA in the censuses, multiple people with the same name in a locale, and solving problems before 1850.
  • the book is entertainingly written.  It is a great combination of case studies, options and development of a research plan for each problem.

I think this would make a good reference book to have on hand. But, this is not a reference book like The Handybook but more like a guide to solutions in general.

I want to thank Karen in Chicago for continuing the dialog on certification.  She shared with me some of her wonderful work product and caused a big shift in how I do citations.  I had been using Evidence! but on her recommendation I moved over to Evidence Explained, both by ESM.  I admit I still like the census citations better in Evidence! but I will live with it.  She also was kind enough to review one of my documents (she is taking the ProGen course) and I failed everything!  Back to work.

Happy Hunting!


What I have done since the last post:  completed (!) the SGS Bulletin and the newsletter for this quarter.  Now it needs to be printed (could occur next weekend) and mailed (could occur the Friday after Thanksgiving.  Woo hoo!  This has been totally consumptive.  I also had a genealogical emergency….had to put in a few hours for a client to add some information related to a project I had done for her for a birthday that is just a week away.  I presented to the SAR on the changes to medicine and health care before, during and after the Civil War, a topic that has interested me ever since I did the Jens Dahle report.  This week I will speak to the Seattle Newcomers Club (50 are registered, a record!) on starting your own genealogy.  Should be interesting.  Found out that one auction is completed and someone bought my services!  I guess there were a number of bidders (even better.)

1. Rising, Marsha Hoffman. The Family Tree Problem Solver Cincinnati, Ohio: Family Tree Books, 2005.

2. Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained, Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2007.

3. Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1997.

4. Everton, A. Lee. The Handybook for Genealogists. Logan, Utah: The Everton Publishers, Inc., 1999.

Part 3: How do you incorporate your data from the computer to the papers you write?

The only right answer is “It depends!”  For me, it depends on what I am writing and who is my audience.

I used to think that making good genealogy reports was only a function of the computer program I bought.  I now think differently.

I had always believed (and still do) that the computer program is for storing evidence about my ancestors and their descendants.   This evidence is the result of the compilation of information that has been analyzed by me and connections/relationships have been identified and recorded.  I used to believe that if I just worked the information cleanly enough then I could “punch a button” and out would come a really good report I could use in all situations.  I was wrong.  The information is sterile; the stories are repetitive….this doesn’t make them bad, but they are just not acceptable in all situations such as the books I write or for the requirements of certification.  I also admit that my requirements have changed over time; I never started doing genealogy because I wanted to write the family book or get certified!

I am now careful about when I use what is “canned” in the computer.

This is what I do:  while I gather the data I try to think of the good “stories” that each person could tell.  Is there anything unusual, such as a very young or old person getting married? …a solo emigration at a young age?  …anything odd about the timing of children (my grandfather was a “1 day baby”….his parents married the day before he was born!  It was a miracle!)?  Or, did they work outside the parish frequently?   Did their parents die when they were young?  All events tell you something about their lives.  Because I am an architect, I also think that our physical environment shapes us, so I ask questions about the land and how it might have influenced decision making.  Lacking our ancestors direct communication, we have only our own analytical abilities to rely upon.  These questions can sometimes be answered by looking very closely at the “public” information provided.

Let me give you an example of information you can gather which is a great story:

  • the Christmas Day Flood in 1717 struck the entire North Sea coast of Holland, Denmark and Germany and affected all families living in it’s path.
  • this is documented in a beautiful map (see below)
  • Also in 1719, to pay for the improvements to the Ostfriesen dike, the officials conducted a tax census and counted households.
  • All my mother’s ancestors were within the flood zone.
  • I have over 80 identified family members who are survivors of this flood

In my computer program, I can create a tag that allows me to link people to the flood and tax census events. But, the repetitiveness of that story for each person is mind numbing and implies that each had the same experience.  If you look closely at the map, one can see that those closer to the dike break had a different experience than those further away and others ended up with a ship in their backyard!  It’s a great story and it’s all on the map or in the census! If I were to use just the computer program’s suggested language it would tell the same story for all but not a true story.

When I wrote books on two of my immigrant families, Bengt Peter Anderson and Ryke Rykena and their families ( I quickly found that I was using the information stored in the database but very little of it was “canned” from the computer, the notable exceptions were the pedigree charts and family group sheets at the end.  Of course, I could have written it differently, but I wanted the books to be for a family audience not the NGS, BCG and not even other genealogists.  I also knew that the more graphic rather than narrative information I could include, the better the book.  This approach would not be suitable for the types of reports needed for BCG.  For certification, the format of these reports is so prescribed, it takes me less time to rewrite then it does to use the “canned” report and modify.  (I admit that because of my internal set up with my MAC, the latter is not even a possibility.)  The writing style is better if “fresh,”  rather than relying on the repetitiveness of a computer.

How do you work?

Happy Hunting!


What I have done since the last post:  Added 500 words to the Dahle lineage report and have the narrative completed.  Now to start the footnoting.  Worked on my class assignment for the Bibliography.  We have to find 15 different sources and annotate them.  I have all but 3 or 4.  All relate to Dahle’s Civil War service and his stint in the hospitals of Washington DC.  Also found some very interesting photos.

Part 2: What is your physical set up for working back and forth between the data and the narrative?

I have a double screen set up.  I cannot imagine doing this without that duality.  On the left side I have my genealogy program always “live” and on the right side, I have the browser open.  I use FireFox, but I am not sure it isn’t because it’s got a cute logo.  The browser has the following tabs open as I write this:, 1801 census for Norway from DigitalArkivet, the 1875 census for Norway, findagrave, David Rumsey historical maps, Pottery Barn and…and, of course, WordPress for this blog.  I have had more open at a time but that is what I have right now.  I work on a MAC so I the option of 4 complete set ups.  What I have described with software/browser is one.  The other set up is my e-mails and the third has the documents that I am working on such as the lineage report for Jens, the bibliography for class and/or the chronology.  Sometimes if I really get to multitasking, I have the materials for the conference I am chairing in 2012 open also, but not often.  I don’t generally use the fourth.

I will often move the document I am actively working to the primary set up of the data and internet.  That way I can click between people and record the data right from my software program, The Master Genealogist or TMG.

I also have my reference materials at hand.  We have to use Chicago Manual of Style for footnotes for the class and I use Evidence! for the certification reports.  These are just to the right of the keyboard.

Do you do something similar or different?

Happy Hunting!

What I have done since the last post:  made Halloween cookies and gone to the UW football game which we won but now I am hoarse.  Also started reading, Civil War Nurse, the Diary and Letters of Hannah Ropes.  Hannah worked in the DC hospitals during the Civil War until she too contracted  typhoid pneumonia and died in 1863.  She would have been in the hospitals at the same time as Jens but she was in Georgetown.

Has anyone else read Val Greenwood’s book?

Good evening!

Tomorrow night is my third class of the Genealogy and Family History class at UW.   So I spent last night reading Greenwood’s book, as the reading assignment ws chapters, 4, 7, 10 and 12.  Here are my short summations:

Chapter 4: Evaluation of Evidence:  This chapter was written after ESM wrote her book Evidence! and after she wrote the seminal article in the NGS Quarterly.  It’s hard for me to understand why he explains that he rewrote the chapter from his previous edition, references the Evidence! in his footnotes and then proceeds to describe the attributes of 6 different types of evidence (direct, circumstantial, primary, secondary, collateral, hearsay).  No wonder it was confusing.

Chapter 7: Organizing and Evaluating Research Findings:  This was a perplexing chapter to have as a first reading assignment.  The author spends an inordinate amount of time discussing his paper methodology of recording his sources and findings.  Certainly important and important to know about earlier rather than later in your genealogical career.  I question whether his system is 1.) too labor intensive  for most and 2.) if a simpler system could be derived; 3.) a recognition of a computer’s capability of managing this data would have been helpful. I want to talk about the recording of information not found and see if others have developed a great system for doing this.  I actually like my system for recording sources and information not found but I am always interested in improving it.  Let me know how you do this.

Chapter 10: Family History: Going beyond Genealogy:  I have always been more interested in the stories than the dates.  The stories are hard to get, especially in my family of non-story tellers…..and so sometimes I have to rely on the facts to “tell” the story.  In this chapter I think Mr. Greenwood “gets it right”.  We do need to “reach beyond the vital statistics….”  Starting on page 173, he covers a lot of historical questions one could ask as one explores the mores of the community to which our ancestors belonged.  You might find his questions interesting.

Chapter 12: Vital Records:  This provided an historical look at the development of the recording of vital statistics and the census.  I had not thought of how/why we started recording these events at the civil level.  It was a particularly interesting topic.

Happy Hunting!


What I have done since the last post:  Read and commented in the margins (you do annotate your books don’t you?) on the reading assignment for my class.

What citation form do you use?

Tonight I have been working on my Client Report.  It will be composed of a graphic (i.e “picture book”) report (short citations) and a ascendancy report fully cited.  I started both of these this evening.

On the video about certification with Tom Jones (on the BCG website, link is on the right), he states that applicants should use some reputable form of citation structure but a critical aspect is consistency.  The Rubrics for Evaluation of the application published by BCG states “Sources are cited fully and consistently, following recommended standards; lapses of any kind are few in number and generally minor in consequence.”  I have been using Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian by Elizabeth Shown Mills as my base.  What do you use?

The difficulty, of course is that even Ms. Mills changed her format when a few years later she wrote Evidence Explained.

I also, this evening found this site which seems good as well:

Check it out and let me know what you think.  I know that my approach is to put the minimal amount of information in the citation so the source can be located.  Some form writers seem to ascribe to the theory that the longer the citation the better, operating under the “belt, suspenders and a rope” philosophy.

I would be interested in knowing what your approach is to this.

Happy hunting!


What I did since the last post:  I did go to work today and earn a little money!  Started the reports for Jens T. Dahle while I am waiting for the final documents I sent for (naturalization papers and death certificate).  Got a notice that 3 of the items I ordered on inter-library loan cannot be taken from their home library.  I am not surprised.