Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Evaluating Evidence Part 2 - Who, Why and When

Finding the evidence is only the first step, you must also EVALUATE that evidence before you can decide how much weight you place on its validity. You need to answer the following questions:

1) WHO created the record and WHO was the informant for the record?
When you look at a county marriage record the person that created it was the county clerk. Take a look at the other marriage records this same clerk entered. Does it look like he was being careful in his job? How neat is the handwriting? Does it look like he recorded the information accurately or do you find mistakes in the dates or spelling errors? A sloppy clerk who didn't care much for his job could easily make mistakes in recording the information given to him. The bride and groom are the informants. You would think that they would know their own facts but is there a reason for them to lie about their names or birth dates?

You can easily do this same analysis on a census records. Does it look like the enumerator was being careful? Did he put the place of birth for the first person on the page and that person's parents as Georgia and then ditto all the way down the page in all three columns? Is it possible he took a short cut without asking the people where they and their parents were born? Many times being an enumerator was a temp job for someone out of work. It was also a short term job and maybe the person didn't care how well he did it. When you look some of the census pages you immediately ask yourself, "just how educated was this person?" when you see just how sloppily it was done. And what about the informant? Was it the husband? The wife? The 10 year old son? A neighbor? Was there a reason for the informant to give false information? The 1940 census was the first one to indicate who the informant was which helps you with your evaluation of how accurate the information is.

Another example are death certificates. The dead person did not give the information. Who the informant was is very important in determining how valid the information is. Was that person in a position to know the deceased's full name, date of birth, place of birth, full names of both parents and where they were born? You need to make a note of who the informant and what was his/her relationship to the deceased.

2) WHY was the record created?
Why a record was created will determine what parts of the record are considered the most accurate. For example, if you are looking at a deed the land description is the focus of the document and probably spot on in accuracy. The date of death, place of death and cause of death on a death certificate should be accurate but everything else needs to be scrutinized. Draft cards were created to get all of the eligible men tallied up in case they were needed for service. The person's name and address are not suspect nor is his physical description but if the man wanted to go to war then he might have lied about his age so that he would be eligible. On the other hand, if he didn't want to go he might lie about his age the other way, lie or exaggerate a physical disability or lie about who all he was responsible for supporting. Knowing why a draft card was filled out is important.

3) WHEN was the record created?
Was it created at the time of the event or was it created much later? Bible records are an example of this. If the copyright date on the Bible is 1900 but there are births records that occurred in the 1700s how valid is that information? The information might be 100% correct but you have to be aware that someone wrote it down well after the events occurred. If the Bible has a copyright date of 1850 and the births listed are from 1852 through 1870 you would probably regard the birth information as pretty reliable.

Another simple example are the census records. There was an official census date for each census and the information taken was supposed to reflect what was true based on that date. If the census taker showed up well after that date everyone was trying to calculate how old everyone was 15 months ago and it is very easy to make mistakes.

You must look at each piece of evidence with a skeptical eye and ask the right questions.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis

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