Using Indirect Evidence to Establish Genealogical Connections

Written by: Kadri Kallikorm-Rhodes, DAR Library Reference Services Librarian
October 12, 2018

One of the most common problems encountered when conducting genealogical research occurs when you can’t find a single document that clearly states the relationship between two people in your lineage.  This type of problem might need to be resolved using Indirect Evidence.

In very broad terms, for genealogists, evidence can be either direct, indirect, or negative [see Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogical Standards, 50th Anniversary Edition (Nashville & New York: Ancestry Imprint, Turner Publishing, 2014), 1-3, and Thomas W. Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof (Arlington, Va.: National Genealogical Society, 2013) for more information]. Which type of evidence any piece of documentation provides depends on the question asked.

  • Direct evidence is evidence that by itself answers a direct question.
  • Indirect evidence needs to be combined with other evidence, to provide the answer.
  • And negative evidence is information we would expect to see, but don’t. The fact of its absence is evidence by itself.

To make this concept a little clearer, let’s look at a simple example:

Start by imagining a document that identified Jane Doe as an orphan of John Doe, and listed John Bull as her guardian.  The following information might be gleaned from such a record (see this graphic representation of relationships described in this record):

  • John Doe was dead
  • He most likely had a daughter Jane
  • Jane was under age, or needed a guardian for other reasons
  • John Bull became that guardian

So if our question was: Who was the father of Jane Doe?, given that Jane was named as his “orphan,” and if all the other details matched, it would have been fairly safe to assume that John Doe was the father of Jane Doe. We had direct evidence on that question.

However, if we started examining the relationship between Jane Doe and John Bull, and asked “was Jane Doe the niece of John Bull?”, then this document by itself did not provide enough evidence.

If we combined the evidence from the above document with :

  • A marriage register entry for Jane Bull, daughter of Samson, and John Doe, dated prior to Jane Doe’s birth;
  • AND the chronology and the geography matched,
  • AND we had investigated any other possible John Bulls and Jane Does in the area at the time, and ruled them out,

We still would not have enough evidence to say that John Bull was Jane Doe’s uncle (see this graphic representation of relationships).

In order to determine the relationship between John Bull and Jane Doe, still more evidence would be needed. If a will of Samson Bull that listed John Bull and Jane (Bull) Doe as his children were now discovered, AND the chronology and geography matched, AND other possible explanations had been investigated, THEN there would be sufficient indirect evidence to show that John Bull, who was appointed guardian of Jane Doe, was most likely her uncle on her mother’s side (see this graphic representation of the situation).

This example used the original guardianship document, the marriage document, the will of Samson Bull, and the results of the searches into other Jane Does and John Bulls in the neighborhood at the time to provide INDIRECT PROOF of that relationship. And this is exactly how indirect evidence works.

It is not the easy way out (in fact, making a case with direct evidence is MUCH easier), but often, it is all that is available to researchers.

Some of the situations in which indirect might be used include

  • Siblings providing a link to parents or grandparents
  • FAN Club = Friends, Acquaintances and Neighbors allowing to identify a person
  • Naming Patterns providing identifying evidence, etc.

Things to bear in mind when using indirect evidence:

  • More than just names need to match. There are no exceptions to this rule. Matching names alone are never enough to match any two individuals – Other factors need to match as well. These could include chronological, geographic, or other identifying factors.
  • Researchers always need to see the full document, is the second big take-home. Abstracts are fine for theories, and quick examples, but for full research, the actual documents are imperative.
  • Any conflicts of evidence need to be addressed – if the middle initials of individuals or ages don’t match in different pieces of evidence, these kinds of discrepancies will need to be addressed.
  • Yes, clerks and census-takers made mistakes. But far fewer than we as researchers might think. Other possible explanations for discrepancies in names and places will need to be considered, before assuming clerical errors.
  • Relationships between individuals in the same document can never be assumed – evidence is necessary to make inferences.

The most recent DAR Library Lecture dealt with indirect evidence, noting that it can look like pretty much anything, or come from any variety of records – what unites it, is that it is not sufficient by itself to answer the question being asked. 

Please note that this example covers the basic ideas involved in using Indirect Evidence.  These types of situations can often be much more complex.  Remember that if you are thinking about using Indirect Evidence as part of the documentation for a DAR Application or Supplemental Application, you must be sure to review the Analysis information on the Applications/Supplementals page of the Members’ website.  The Analysis for Lineage on NSDAR Applications Form will make it easier for you to write-up your use of indirect evidence in the format that is preferred by the Staff Genealogists in the Office of the Registrar General.

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