How to Use the Genealogical Proof Standard

Can Your Family Tree Pass the 5 Step “Proof” Test?

By Janet Maydem

For most of us, starting the journey of discovering our ancestors and adding them to a family tree is very exciting. For the first time we are proving or denying old family stories, discovering new relations, reading over hard-to-decipher records and figuring out where we fit into the past.

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But, as we eagerly add names to our files, it can be easy to forget how important it is to verify every single fact individually. And doing otherwise can lead to a family tree packed with inaccuracies and ancestors that aren’t even our own.

Family History Daily has numerous articles and lessons about the importance of verifying facts and avoiding common mistakes (such as copying from other people’s trees), but today we want to focus on the best way that you can ensure every part of your tree is as accurate as possible – the Genealogical Proof Standard.

The Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) helps genealogists sort out, verify, and document facts through simple, straightforward guidance. Whether it be a new branch in your tree, a vital date (such as birth or death) or even an occupation – using the GPS will help you ensure your tree is as solid as possible.

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So, whether you have been building on your research for decades and want to review your facts, or are just starting out, take a few moments to discover what the Standard is and how you can apply it to your own tree.

What is the Genealogical Proof Standard?

The Genealogical Proof Standard was developed by the Board for Certification of Genealogists. It ensures that researchers make the effort to verify the facts they present in their family trees.

Below, we have outlined each element that is used in the 5-step verification process for facts and, below that, we have created an example to help you see how these steps can be applied directly to your own personal research.

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The genealogical proof standard includes these 5 elements:

  1. Reasonably exhaustive research. Does the fact in question come from multiple sources and what is the quality of those sources? For example, if a birth record is substantiated by a family member, an original church record, and a record in a state birth index, the confidence that the birth date is correct increases substantially. Searching for and recording all of these sources would be considered reasonably exhaustive. When relying on a single source, ensure that it is reliable enough for this purpose (look for an original, primary source that was created at the time of the event vs a secondary source created later or an index that could have been incorrectly transcribed for instance) or look for additional sources to help bolster the likelihood that an inaccuracy is not present.
  2. Citation of sources. Once you have your sources, write down where you got the information from wherever you are storing your facts (in your tree). Include the title of the record, author if applicable, year of publication, and where the record is kept along with the attached original record. Many online resources include correct citations that you can use to document your sources, often found at the bottom of the page. Many online sites, such as Ancestry and MyHeritage, create citations for you automatically when you add a record to your tree but be careful to always download original records as well.
  3. Analysis and correlation of information. Does your fact fit together with other facts in your tree? Does it make sense? Are the sources reliable, as discussed above. If not, is there a logical explanation for any discrepancies? Step back and really make sure you have a story that holds up against the evidence, not just something you assume happened.
  4. Resolution of conflicts. This one is closely tied to number three. Have you been able to address and resolve the discrepancies you found during the analysis or any new discrepancies that arise? Are there any other conflicts you need to address? If so, resolve every single one.
  5. Conclusion and presentation. If you have a particularly troublesome or complicated fact, make sure that you write up the process that you followed to arrive at your conclusion somewhere in your family tree. Be ready to present this if someone questions the accuracy of your fact.

An Example of How to Apply the Genealogical Proof Standard to Your Research

While the GPS should be be applied to all facts in your tree, it is especially helpful if you have a fact about an ancestor that you are reasonably sure is correct, but you haven’t been able to prove with direct evidence.

Let’s use the case of my great-great-great grandfather, William Rogers, as an example. My mother knows his death date and the location where he lived when he died but has searched for years for William Rogers’s grave and has been unsuccessful.

She is reasonably sure of the location of the cemetery the grave would be in, however. We can use the Genealogical Proof Standard to document why my mother’s conclusion about his burial is most likely correct, despite the fact that she cannot locate the tombstone.

  1. Exhaustive Research: William Rogers died in Jefferson County, Wisconsin on 14 April 1866. My mother spent many years searching for his grave, but was never able to find his tombstone despite being sure he is buried in a certain cemetery. My mother has gathered several pieces of additional evidence – including his death record proving place of death, a census record that showed him living in Hebron Township, Jefferson County in 1860 and demonstrating that he lived here for some time before death, a death record in Hebron Township for his first wife, Margaret Elmendorf, from January 1860, a marriage record from Whitewater, Walworth County, Wisconsin that documents his second marriage to Hannah Gray in 1865, and a plat map that shows that Hannah Gray owned land in Cold Spring Township, Jefferson County, Wisconsin. A number of relations where also found to have been buried in the suspected cemetery and no known additional family cemetery exists. All of this documents his connection to the place, the fact that he died here and that there is not another likely spot of his burial.
  2. Citation of sources: My mother has documented all of these sources in her family tree. Her sources are historical records of high quality.
  3. Analysis and correlation of information: The pieces my mother has assembled make sense, especially when you look on a map. Hebron Township and Cold Spring Township are adjacent to each other, so William Rogers lived in close proximity to Hannah Gray. The northern portion of Whitewater, the city where they were married, lies in Jefferson County, adjacent to Cold Spring Township. Hannah Gray’s land was very close to the Cold Spring Cemetery in Cold Spring Township. All of the places in the records are in very close proximity to each other.
  4. Resolution of conflicts: The one conflict in this case that still exists is that William Rogers may have been buried in the Cold Spring Cemetery, near his second wife’s land, or he may have been buried next to his first wife. Based on evidence related to William Roger’s children and where they lived after the death of his first wife, my mother concluded that the decision on where to bury William Rogers was most likely left to his second wife.
  5. Conclusion and presentation: The conclusion is that William Rogers is most likely buried in the Cold Spring Cemetery, Cold Spring Township, Jefferson County, Wisconsin. In her presentation, my mother has also noted that he may be buried in Hebron Township, but that Cold Spring Cemetery is the most likely location.

By applying the Genealogical Proof Standard, my mother has narrowed this long-standing mystery to one primary location and one secondary location.

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When looking for places to apply the GPS in your tree, pay special attention to:

  1. The connections between generations (are the parents really the right parents)
  2. Old facts that existed before common government vital records as they can be harder to interpret or more likely to contain errors (read about old records)
  3. People with common names as they are easily mixed up (see this article)
  4. Facts you do not have primary sources for
  5. Facts that seem misplaced in your tree for any reason
  6. Facts for people who had multiple names in their lives (first, nickname or surname)
  7. Facts based on family details, or other people’s trees, without enough source material
  8. Mysteries, as you critically review evidence you may uncover new facts or avenues of research
  9. Facts based almost entirely on census records (this is a common mistake and census records are notoriously prone to error)
  10. Old facts you have not examined in awhile, especially if new information has surfaced about the family

By applying this process to all of your research, or at least those facts that are in question, you can help ensure that the family tree you hope to share with your descendants is as accurate as possible.

Good luck!

Janet Meydam is a freelance writer who has over 40 years of experience in genealogy as a hobby. Her knowledge includes researching many different records from the United States, Germany and Poland. 

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1 thought on “Can Your Family Tree Pass the 5 Step “Proof” Test?”

  1. I am compelled to relate my paternal grandparents’ story because there are always outliers to that which is considered to be customary and usual.
    My grandparents were married and had 10 children together. Two of their children died-one as an infant, the other at 30 years of age. The rest grew to adulthood. going on to have their own families. After the adult children moved out of the family homestead, the grandparents remained in the house built in 1936 or so and life went on as usual, until … one evening, during supper, when there was knock at the back door which my grandmother answered.
    At the door was a young woman asking for her father without giving his name. My grandmother explained the the young woman was mistaken, but the girl persisted. Imagine my grandmother’s dismay when the girl blurted out her husband’s name as the person for whom she searched. I would love to have been the mouse in the house to hear what transpired between husband an wife once the woman made her exit.
    My grandparents remained married until 1955 when death parted them. In his will , my grandfather specified that he was to buried next to his first wife and not next to my grandmother. She never forgave him.
    My uncle narrated this to me in 2011 and others confirmed the narrative while records confirm the place of death and the distant burial place.. But if one does not know the family history one might not know how to unearth the information about the first family or where my grandfather’s grave might be. Much of the family knows nothing about my grandfather’s first family-but I am the adoptee who came out of the family closet in 2010, knowing basically nothing…. and, in consequence, having to vet everything plus reviewing again and again to ascertain that my ‘facts’ are credible Records are too often riddled with error and census data is th eworst of sources.
    And adoptees are a source of undocumented truth and with documents which deceive.

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