barry miller

Archive for the ‘Evidence’ Category

Evidence 2.0

In Evidence on February 18, 2011 at 5:05 pm

I have to credit a family member, albeit a distant one, for making me think more rigorously about genealogical evidence. The thought occurred while I was reading about another family—the Leverings (who married into the Dehavens, who married into the Millers), in Col. John Levering’s book Levering Family History and Genealogy. The link is to a copy of that book in the Google Books library. It is free.

Google Books is a fantastic resource, and has a number of genealogy books in digital form. Some are free; others cost money. I was fortunate to find two free books on the Levering family history on Google Books. Less fortunate was the author of the first book Horatio Gates Jones, who was scorned by Col. John for his less-than-rigorous approach to assessing evidence. Col. John describes Mr. Jones, on the first page of his preface, as a “boyhood friend.” That friendship did not compel Col. John to give a good review to Mr. Jones’ work:

I contemplated an easy start in the genealogical feature, by beginning where he ended, save supplying the poverty of dates which characterized his publication. I found this a difficult undertaking. A third of a century had elapsed since he gleaned the field. A generation had passed away, and the scent had become cold. Notwithstanding these advantages, the emendations must be undertaken, as his work needs clothing.

Mr. Jones was not the only family member who earned Col. John’s wrath. As most authors do who write a preface, he devoted part of it thanking those who had helped him. Unlike any other author I ever read, the Colonel added a section berating those who had not helped:

Adversely, there are others whom I might name, but who should be grateful to me for the several return postage stamps which each absorbed. When I addressed educated, cultured persons, I felt sure of a prompt return, but my very numerous letters of inquiry exposed the existence of some mere bas-reliefs in the connection; lacking individuality.

In all well regulated families there are persons, who, when weaned as calves, have Topsy’s idea of parentage. The Bible says of such: “For he beholdeth himself and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was.”

I might dip my stylus in gall and draw pen pictures of a few, but perhaps I had better—don’t!

Levering Family History, Preface, p. 11.

I can only applaud Col. John’s restraint. Imagine the scolding that his unhelpful correspondents might have received if he hadn’t held back.

But the Colonel’s anger was one that all family researchers must feel at some time. They seek the truth about their family’s history, and sometimes the truth resists finding. Like the Colonel, they keep looking. He went a long way toward explaining why we keep looking by quoting Daniel Webster: “Men who are regardless of their ancestors and their posterity are very apt to be regardless of themselves.”

It helps my review genealogical evidence to wonder whether my conclusion would satisfy Col. John.

Genealogical Evidence

In Evidence on February 17, 2011 at 9:35 pm

As the “about” part of this blog says, I practice law. I deal with questions of evidence every day. Genealogy was a hobby, and I don’t like letting work and leisure overlap. That kept me from seeing the obvious: I might be able to make headway on some of my roadblocks if I started thinking like a lawyer about genealogical evidence.

There is not a complete overlap between the evidence used in trials and the evidence that genealogists use. But some of the ways lawyers are trained to think about evidence might benefit researchers.

In particular, researchers should understand that the law does not speak in terms of conclusive evidence. Generally, a judge will allow a jury to hear evidence if it tends to prove or disprove an issue that is relevant to the case. It is the jury’s role to decide what weight to give that evidence in reaching its conclusion.

Too many of my genealogical endeavors have been hampered by the search for one piece of conclusive evidence, rather than assessing several pieces of evidence, some of which may by contradictory, and reaching a verdict. I blame this on the fact that, while I’ve spoken to juries, I’ve never actually been on one.

The family researcher must learn to play all  the roles. Like advocates, they must discover evidence. Like judges, they must decide what evidence is “admissible”—that is, relevant to an issue that is of consequence to their research. And like juries, they weigh that evidence and make a decision.

A difficult research question may be resolved if the researcher stops to consider which role they are acting in at a particular time. Do they have enough evidence? If not, time to gather more. Don’t worry about the effect of the evidence; just gather all you can. Then put on your judging robe and review each piece of evidence. Does it make any fact that you would like to establish more or less probable? Or is it attractive because it makes a good story, but doesn’t really prove anything. Finally, get in the jury box, weigh the admissible evidence, and make a conclusion.

Juries are not always right, but I am convinced that most of them do the best they can do to arrive at the truth. Some genealogical questions will never be resolved conclusively. We just make the best-informed guess at the truth that we can make.

Unlike a trial, however, genealogical is not a linear process. It is iterative. You can never be certain that you have all the evidence. Neither can lawyers. They just know that they have a court-imposed deadline after which they have to stop looking for evidence. After that it’s time to try the case. Genealogists have the luxury of going back to look for more evidence, starting the process over again.

We’ll see  if this method helps me reach a better conclusion about Barney.