One of the great benefits of online research has been the search hints offered by websites like Mocavo and Findmypast. These are tremendously helpful, and can point you in directions you might not have thought to look. But at the same time, it is critically important to review this hints before blindly adding the information and/or individuals to your family tree. One of the biggest issues we have is conflicting evidence. Sources often provide contradictory facts. We have to evaluate the sources as well as the evidence in order to come up with a theory. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind when evaluating your conflicting evidence.
1. Quality vs. Quantity
This problem has been around forever, but the digital age has compounded it tremendously. People find information and post it willy-nilly without checking first to see if it is accurate. Original records created close to the time and place of the event are usually the best. Secondary sources created later can still be accurate, but it is important to review them as well. Finding the same information posted in many places does not mean it is more accurate than information posted in fewer places.
2. First-Person Accounts Aren’t Always Correct
As a rule, first-person accounts of an event have a higher probability of being correct. But that does not mean that they are always correct. Family members, for example, may have an agenda. They may wish to have situations painted in certain ways so people will not think poorly of them. They may hide events, or they may provide misleading information. More than one marriage date, for example, has been fudged so that people would not know that the first child arrived less than nine months later.
3. Lineage Societies Are Not Infallible
There are numerous organizations whose membership is composed of individuals who have proven descent from specific ancestors. Daughters of the American Revolution, Society of Mayflower Descendants, etc., all have records available to the public for research for members who joined, showing their lineage. Unfortunately, requirements are stricter today than they used to be, and earlier records often have errors, and little actual documentation. In fact, many organizations no longer allow new members to enter based on older membership applications because of the lack of documentation. Any information in these records should be verified in original sources.
4. Conflicts Can Occur In a Single Source
Sometimes a single source can conflict with itself. Part of the information may be correct, or all of it may be, or none of it may be. For example, I was recently working with a diary in which a woman said of her brother that he died in 1819 at the age of 56. One of those facts could be correct, but they both could not be. Her brother was born in 1760, which would make him 58 or 59 in 1819. It would take additional research in other sources to confirm which is correct.
5. Sometimes There is No Resolution
When researching we always want to have an answer. Yes or no. This or that. Right or wrong. Unfortunately, in genealogy, sometimes there are no answers. Records are lost or destroyed, or may not have ever existed in the first place. Occasionally we must present both possibilities without being able to prove one way or another which is correct. The American Genealogist runs a regular column called Enigmas that deal with just these types of problems.