A Preponderance of Evidence

In attempting to determine my Great Aunt Mary’s birthdate, I had to acquire a large number of documents and evaluate the birth information contained therein.  In U.S. civil courts, the idea of “preponderance of the evidence” is often used to decide cases, while in criminal courts, the concept of “beyond a reasonable doubt” is required to convict.

In genealogy, we are often unable to come to a conclusion beyond a reasonable doubt and must rely on a preponderance of the evidence.  This preponderance does not simply refer to the amount of evidence, but rather to the likely truth and accuracy of the evidence.

With the evidence that I uncovered to determine Great Aunt Mary’s birthdate, it became clear that the evidence supported two different birthdates: January 12, 1884 and March 12, 1887.  By far, the date March 12, 1887 is supported by the greater number of documents, but none of the documents supporting this date provides primary information about Great Aunt Mary’s birthdate.  Primary information is:

“data contributed by a knowledgeable eyewitness to or participant in the event that is the subject of the record or by an official whose duties included making a full, accurate record of it.”

The Board for Certification of Genealogists, The BCC Genealogical Standards Manual (Orem, Utah: Ancestry Publishing, 2000), 9

In addition to the requirement that the record be made by an eyewitness, participant, or official, the record should have been made close to the same time and place as the event and should have been recorded accurately and without bias.

Furthermore, many of the sources for Great Aunt Mary’s birthdate are not original sources.  An original source is:

“the person or record whose information did not come from data already spoken or written.  The original is the most authoritative source.  Often, however, it no longer survives or its preservation dictates that it be examined only as an image copy (microfilm, digitized image, and so on).”

The Board for Certification of Genealogists, The BCC Genealogical Standards Manual (Orem, Utah: Ancestry Publishing, 2000), 8-9

Let’s examine the sources for Great Aunt Mary’s birthdate:

  1. Marianna’s Birth and Baptismal Record, a Church Record from Poland
  2. Marjanna’s Hamburg Passenger Record
  3. Marianna’s Passenger Arrival List
  4. The 1910 Census
  5. The 1920 Census
  6. The 1930 Census
  7. The Copy of Record of Marriage
  8. The Return of a Birth for Mary’s son John
  9. Mary’s Petition for Naturalization
  10. Mary’s SS-5 Application for Social Security Account and Tax Number
  11. The Social Security Death Index
  12. Information from Mary’s daughter Fran
  13. Mary’s Cemetery Burial Record
  14. Mary’s Gravestone Epitaph

The only document that contains primary information on Mary’s birthdate is the Birth and Baptismal Record, a Church Record from Poland.  All other documents provide secondary information because they were not recorded by an eyewitness, participant, or official whose duty it was to record the event.  Sure, Mary was a participant in the event, but she is not likely to have remembered the actual event when she provided her birthdate for later documents.  Furthermore, only Mary’s Birth and Baptismal Record was prepared at the time and place the event occurred.

None of these sources are original sources.  By definition, an original source contains information not derived from some other source.  Only one original can exist.

Several of these sources are exact images (microfilm copies, photocopies, photographs), but they are also derivative sources.  Derivative sources are copies of the originals, but exact images can be the excellent sources if the quality of the image is high and the image is unaltered.  Mary’s Birth and Baptismal Record is an exact image of an original source (a church register in Dubiecko, Poland).  Mary’s Petition for Naturalization is also an exact image of an original source.

The rest of the sources are derivative sources generated by transcription, information passed on verbally or information passed on in writing.

The birth information provided in the exact image of the original source of Mary’s Birth and Baptismal Record is by far the highest quality source for Mary’s birthdate, since this record contains primary information.  While Mary’s Petition for Naturalization is also an exact image of an original source, the Petition does not contain primary information about Mary’s birth.

Tomorrow:  The Genealogical Proof Standard

Copyright © 2006 by Stephen J. Danko

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