Reference Centre, Genealogy 101

Proof: Primary, Secondary, Tertiary and Preponderance

Proof is a way or means of demonstrating, beyond doubt, the truth of something.

Records are the indisputable proof of the existence of an individual. The reliability and credibility of that proof rests on the circumstances by which the records was created. Proof is a way or means of demonstrating, beyond doubt, the truth of something. Genealogical research, as with scientific investigations, is concerned with obtaining proof of an event. Genealogical research is also concerned with proof of descent for it is of no value to have proof of a great-grandfather's birth if you cannot demonstrate that your grandparent was his child. Your proof, then, will be the means through which you can demonstrate that your information of the family's composition and history are correct.

In some circles you will hear a great deal about direct and indirect evidence as well as about primary and secondary records and a preponderance of evidence. Here, you will learn about those terms. You will also discover that some of the confusion about documentary evidence which has arisen can be eliminated. But first some definitions are required.

Evidence is defined as 1) something that makes clear that an event or piece of information is true or false; and, 2) any information or facts that point toward, but do not fully prove, the truth or falsehood of some particular event.

Direct evidence is defined as "the evidence of a witness who testifies that a fact to be proved is true of his own knowledge". Direct evidence can only be delivered by an eye witness to an event.

Indirect evidence refers to information that is not directly connected to a fact, but produces additional information. Indirect evidence is best known as circumstantial evidence - evidence that points to a particular conclusion even though these is no direct evidence to support the conclusion.

Proof means evidence that leaves no doubt.

Each record can be categorized as being of one or more of three classifications: primary, secondary, or tertiary. It is this classification of records that will determine the degree to which any one record can be relied upon - the weight of the proof - to prove that something really is as it appears to be. As we examine the criteria for each class of documentary evidence I am sure that you will see that by including the terms direct and indirect evidence we would only cloud the real import and weight of each type of evidence thereby devaluing or overvaluing certain documents that we have collected throughout our search.

Confused? Well, let's see if I can help you to clarify the murky waters of documentary evidence for you.

Every document that we deal with provides evidence of some nature. What is at issue is the credibility and reliability of that evidence. To help us negotiate our way through the tangled threads of a family's history there are some criteria that can be established immediately.

Primary Proof

Proving our family lineage through only primary documentary evidence is the height to which we all aspire. Unfortunately, we will not often be able to fully document a family through entirely primary evidence. We will discover, also, that true primary documentation exists in fewer numbers than originally believed.

Primary records were created at any time during an ancestor's existence. Such documents must have been created either

  1. directly by an ancestor, such as a Will;

  2. by someone who was present at an event to which that ancestor was a party, such as a death certificate issued by an attending physician; or,

  3. by some person or entity deemed to have received first-hand knowledge of the event pursuant to legislation in force at that time, such as an office that registers birth, death, and marriage certificates; and,

  4. the record must have been created immediately or within a short time following the actual event.

Accordingly, primary records can be:

  • original certificates of birth, death, and marriage

  • in some circumstances, original death certificates issued by a funeral director

  • original certificates of baptism issued by a church

  • photocopies or photographs of church register entries when the name of the church and, if applicable, the microfilm or microfiche number has been inscribed on the entry. In this instance, copies are generally the only method by which you can obtain entries from a church register at minimal cost. This method may not be acceptable proof for some organizations in which case a certification of the entry would have to be obtained from the diocesan official who holds the register.

  • An original Will. Although it is preferable to have the original document those are virtually impossible to obtain if the Will has been filed in a probate court or record office. Again, a notation of the source from which the Will was copied will serve to answer future questions about its source.

  • Deeds, mortgages, statutory declarations

  • diaries, journals and correspondence that had been written by your ancestor

  • Some school, immigration, citizenship and military documents

  • Original Herald's records

  • Certified copies of any of the above documents

Criteria for Primary Proof

The record must have been created:

  1. directly by an ancestor, such as a Will;

  2. by someone who was present at an event to which that ancestor was a party, such as a death certificate issued by an attending physician; or,

  3. by some person or entity deemed to have first-hand knowledge of the event pursuant to legislation in force at that time, such as an office that issues birth, death, and marriage certificates; and,

  4. the record must have been created immediately or within a short time following the actual event.

Review, again, the criteria for primary proof that is set out in the four points above. Looking at criteria numbered 1 and 3 we can see that the record must have been created by or on behalf of an individual in that person's presence with their acknowledgment that the event has been accurately recorded. This is the situation that exists when a parent registers the birth of a child, or a clergyman records a baptism, marriage, or burial.

A person who requests that a record be created, such as in the case of a midwife registering a birth or taking a child for baptism would also be considered primary evidence. Doctors who file death certificates and clergymen who file marriages with the local authorities all fall under the second criterion for primary proof.

I would like to particularly draw your attention to criteria numbered 4 - the record must have been created immediately or within a short time following the actual event. Consider for a moment what would happen if a father registered the birth of his child several months late. Do you suppose that he would accurately remember the date of birth? What about people who were traveling at the time of the birth of one of their children? Do you suppose that they would accurately remember the place at which the birth had occurred after several months had elapsed? Likely not! And, so, you discover that the rule of documentary evidence is to consider who said what and how far removed in time from the time of the actual event.

Using a death certificate as an example of a primary document, what proof of information does a death certificate provide? Well, it proves that an individual who was known to the informant as "John Smith" died on a certain day in a certain place. Any other information on that death certificate, because it was not provided by the person who knew or ought to have known the truth of the facts, is really only secondary in nature because it has been recorded using second-hand information. This particularly holds true in regard to any birthplace or birthdate that is stated on the death certificate. The only time that you can safely consider a birthplace to be primary evidence on a death certificate is if the person registering the death was a parent of the deceased, a clergyman who had baptised the deceased as a child, or the doctor who was present at the deceased's birth. Death certificates that include names of parents of the deceased also only provide primary proof that the deceased lived as a child with those two people who acted in a parental capacity towards the child. The inclusion of the names of the parents does not prove that the deceased was the biological child of either one or both of those parents.

Can you now begin to see how we must look at each document closer to learn not only what the document is telling us but also to learn how each piece of information on a document is assigned a different weight or value based on who provided the information for that record. You must learn to think carefully about each document that you encounter during your search. Think about the amount of information the document is giving you, the information that is missing and also, about the person who requested that the document be created and the relationship of that person to the person named in the document. Think also about the mirror image of what you have in front of you. Would the absence of a death certificate prove that an individual was still alive, or that he or she died at another locale? Not necessarily. It may simply mean that no body was recovered. Unless someone died as the result of a well-recognized cataclysmic event, there is no country in the world that will permit a death certificate to issue without a body.

Primary records, therefore, may only provide primary proof of one or two facts at best notwithstanding that there may be other perfectly valid information on that same document. All other information appearing on that document is secondary in weight.

Secondary Proof

Criteria for Secondary Proof:

  1. Created by or on behalf of an individual who has a presumed degree of personal knowledge of an event

  2. Created within three to six months from the occurrence of the event

  3. Compiled directly from original information, such as calendars and some indexes.

Secondary proof encompasses those documents that were created by or on behalf of an individual who has a presumed degree of personal knowledge of an event. Secondary proof can also come via the information found in a primary document that does not fit within the parameters of primary criteria. Secondary proofs also permit a much longer time factor to operate between the occurrence of the event and the creation of the record.

Secondary documents can also take the form of records that have been created directly from original primary and secondary sources.

  • Notices of vital events and other legal notices found in newspapers;

  • the reports of the archives that include excerpts from document collections;

  • church register transcripts;

  • voting registers;

  • tax lists; and,

  • street and telephone directories

are all secondary sources.

It is not unusual to find that at some point in your search you will have to rely solely on secondary evidence for the proof of our ancestry as that may be the only type of source that is available. Both Ireland and Devon, England suffered the loss of major collections, including Wills. The former occurred during 1922 and the latter during 1942. All that remains of those valuable documents are the calendars that had been prepared at the time the records were deposited. Some of those calendars are quite complete and name beneficiaries and their relationship to the deceased. For some family historians, the calendars will have to be relied upon to prove a connection to earlier generations. Unfortunately as calendars are compiled by a person who does not have a presumed degree of first-hand knowledge of an event nor was present at the event, a calendar of Wills and court records as well as a census index will be, at best, a secondary source no matter how much solid genealogical evidence may be presented in it.

Secondary sources typically provide steps toward satisfying one aspect of genealogical proof but not the other. Street directories can verify the existence of a number of people living in one household but do not constitute proof that Mary Jones is the wife, child, or other relation of John Jones of the same household. In the absence of stated relationships in the directory, Mary Jones may hold no relationship to John Jones whatsoever. A compiler of secondary sources also opens up the possibility of error. Consequently, records of this classification cannot be relied upon as primary proof of an event. Secondary sources often appear in the form of indices and can include documents such as

  • Indices of birth, deaths, or marriages;

  • Census indices

  • some calendars of Wills and court documents

  • some generalized record indices such as NIDS - the National Inventory of Documentary Sources

With indices you must remain flexible. By and large indices provide little proof of facts. However, some Ontario county marriage indices do provide parental information and can, therefore, be treated as a true secondary source. Where you have the option, you should consult the original source to verify that no errors in the information had occurred during the indexing process. You also have to be certain that you are using a first-generation index as opposed to one that brings together numerous other indexes. Those types, such as the International Genealogical Index and the People of Ontario series, fall into the tertiary class of documents.

Tertiary Records

Tertiary records are documents that were created at a time or by a person or entity far removed from the event in which your ancestor participated. Within this classification of proof is to be found the following types of records:

  • Family traditions and lore

  • Compiled genealogies such as those created by Burke, Debrett, and Whitaker

  • News articles

  • Published family histories where it is likely that the author relied upon secondary and other tertiary sources for their information and primary sources have not been cited

  • The International Genealogical Index

Criteria for Tertiary Proof

  1. Records created about an individual without that individual's input or knowledge.

  2. Records created by an individual who was under duress at the time.

  3. Records created as an evolution from other sources, such as an index to a entire class of records.

  4. Records created retrospectively any time after six months has elapsed from the time of the event.

Looking at the criteria by which documents fall into the tertiary class of proof we can see that this is where every document that does not fit the criteria for primary or secondary proof falls. These are records that were created without the knowledge or input of the individual concerned. Consequently, newspaper articles or exposes and even some published family histories fall under this category.

The one criterion I would like to draw your attention to is numbered 2 - records created by an individual who was under duress at the time. If you think that you will never run into this problem I'd like to tell you that if you have British, European, Jewish or Italian ancestry you will eventually have before you a document that makes no sense in relation to the rest of your ancestral story. Births, marriage, exit visas and genealogies have all been falsified at various times throughout history and for various reasons. Many times the very life of an ancestor who was fleeing his native country or trying to hide his religious background depended upon falsified documents to keep them safe.

Throughout Britain, but particularly in England, up to the twentieth century it was necessary in some instances to bring fictitious court actions in order to recover an interest in real property. Typically the defendant's name was John Williams. Imagine the delight of the researcher who goes to a record office to uncover her John Williams past and finds that he was a defendant in so many actions. My, what a lot of property he must have owned? He must have been very wealthy! And, well, I am sure that you can fill in the blanks to complete the rest of that story. John Doe was called upon just as frequently to act as a bondsman to marriage licence applications. Woe be to the researcher that just happens to be searching in England for an ancestor surnamed Doe.

Proof by Preponderance

Proof by Preponderance is the assembling of several documents that individually provide little direct proof of an event but, when considered together, infer the occurrence of an event.

The last category of evidentiary proof is that of preponderance of the evidence. Let me dispel the mystique of preponderance for you. Preponderance occurs automatically as you gather each and every piece of primary, secondary and tertiary evidence. As your research reaches backward through time you will eventually arrive at the point at which primary records are no longer available. All that will be available to you are smatterings of secondary and tertiary class documents. This is the time at which you will have to set about building a case for preponderance in order to prove a link to an earlier generation.

Returning to the earlier example of the death certificate with parents included: The parents recorded on that certificate are only secondary information. If you are unable to find a birth certificate, which is the only possible means of primary proof of a biological relationship, then in order to prove that the parents of the deceased were likely his or her biological parents, you will have to set about building a case to support your argument. Your first step would be to obtain your ancestor's christening record. You could find the deceased as a child on his or her first census. You could find a Will or a land transaction that makes the connection clear between the deceased and the named parents. You could collect school records or military enlistment documents. You could look for early statistical census or tax assessments that provide the numbers and age ranges of people in a household. An entry of the birth of the deceased in a family bible would be very helpful as would a full-length obituary from a newspaper. You could also seek out a Will of another family member that names the deceased in a specified relationship such as cousin, grandson, brother, or nephew.

The most important aspect in building a case for preponderance of evidence is to gather documents that were created throughout the life of an individual even if those documents are only secondary or tertiary in nature.

In some instances, to make our case for proof of ancestry via preponderance of evidence it becomes necessary to gather what I refer to as negative-results evidence. In other words, to disprove or attempt to disprove that our ancestor is not the descendant of some other set of parents.

I have recently completed extensive research of a well-known Gainsborough family. Despite all of the records of that family that have been produced over the years no one has ever mentioned the existence of Daniel. Dealing with the 1795-1807 timeframe in Ontario's history there is very little evidence beyond preponderance that could dispel Daniel's dubious parentage. Consequently, my job came down to one of proving, through the use of numerous statistical census, marriage registers and christening records who Daniel was not. I also had to follow up on families that were scattered throughout Ontario by the same surname. Not a quick or easy task. However, once I had eliminated every possible parentage for Daniel only one statistical census left a slot open for one unaccounted male of the right age group. Based on the negative results search and when considered with that one remaining census, I was able to state with a fair degree of certainty that Daniel's father had been identified. Unfortunately, Daniel's father had been a second generation Canadian and so not even land petitions or grants were available to help me out. A Chancery court Order had been filed on the title of Daniel's property but unfortunately even the documents that had been filed in that action had been destroyed at Osgoode hall during the 1970s.

I hope that you can now see that preponderance of evidence is not as mysterious a process as it sounds. It really happens automatically as you wend your way back through an ancestor's life.

In all cases where proof of an event has been gleaned through preponderance of evidence you will need to state your findings in writing and document the sources that you relied upon for the formulation of your opinion.

Census Returns

One of the exceptions that you need to be apprised of now is the classification of original census returns. Original census returns can be categorized as being primary, secondary, and tertiary information as you will not know who supplied the information to the census enumerator. The census questionnaire was supposed to be completed by someone in a household with reasonable knowledge of the facts. In reality that was an almost impossible feat to accomplish. If the head of the household was a married man and he completed the questionnaire then he will have primary information only as to his age, birthplace, occupation, and so on. He can also be presumed to have primary information relating to the birth dates and places of his children. That husband, however, will have only secondary information of his wife's birth date and birth place. Similarly, he will have only secondary information of any children born to his wife either during her previous marriage or by her out-of-wedlock. He will also only possess, at best, secondary knowledge of any other lodger, boarder or other relative who was living in the household with him. Occasionally, enumerators had to seek their information from a neighbour who may have gained his or her information from your ancestor directly or through the local gossip grapevine. So, by this last circumstance, the information of a census would fall into the category of a tertiary source. A census entry will offer proof only of the following points:

  1. that a couple were residing together, possibly legally married, possibly not;

  2. that the couple had certain children living with them. Some or all of those children may or may not be the biological offspring of the husband and wife. Some or all of those children may have been adopted, conceived out-of-wedlock, or may be the issue from a previous marriage of either the husband or the wife.

  3. If applicable, certain other people were living in the same household who may or may not be relatives of the husband or wife.

Some census returns did not require a statement of each person's relationship to the head of the household. Those types of census further diminish the acceptability of proof that may have been otherwise provided. From such a census one cannot assume that a man and woman in a household who are of the same age bracket are husband and wife. Those two people could be siblings, in-laws, cousins, or one could simply be a visitor to the household having no sanguine or marital relationship to the other of them. Similarly, the younger individuals in that household may be children, younger siblings, or the children of another relative. These types of census are encountered in Canadian research up to and including the census of 1881 and in British research on the census of 1841.

In conclusion, genealogical research can only be proved satisfactorily through primary records. Secondary and tertiary records, when a number of such records can be taken together, can be used to provide proof of an event or proof of descent based upon a preponderance of the evidence.

From time to time a census entry or other secondary or tertiary document will be the only record of a family that you will be able to find. If such an occasion arises in your research specify in your notes what other attempts you have made to verify the alleged events and/or relationships. State in writing why you believe that the information in the document you are presenting correctly or incorrectly records relationships or events.

I am sure that you can see that learning how to work with the documents that are left to us it is possible to achieve success in our research efforts. We just have to learn how to work with what is before us, to consider what we are being told, and to consider the value of the evidence that is presented in each document we encounter.

Although it may seem unfamiliar to you at this time to stop and think about what level of proof a document can offer you, you will find that as time progresses and you work with a questioning attitude, assessing the nature of proof will become second nature to you. You will also gain a greater confidence not only in your research finesse but also in the value of your own work. No matter what aspect of records you are dealing with, whether it be identifying a record, locating a record or considering its evidentiary reliability, you have to keep yourself rooted in the past. What your ancestors did, what pressures were placed on them and how they reacted are of prime importance. So we must be careful not to prejudice our ancestors with the actions or events that we think should have transpired.



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