My two general questions are:

  1. At what point can one say that, yes, the adult you have identified as your ancestor is the same person as the child you think might be your ancestor, and that you have therefore identified that person’s parents?
  2. What are some good strategies for recording your degree of confidence (or lack of confidence) in that identification, and therefore in the link back to the previous generation?

The specific case that inspired the question is the following:

  • I can show that my great-great-great grandmother was Elizabeth Butcher, who married James Vallins in Swanscombe, Kent, England on 8 December 1827 (familysearch.org reference).
  • I can show that there was an Elizabeth Butcher born to John Butcher and Artilian (Jackson) Butcher and christened in October 1803 in Swanscombe, Kent. This is around the right time for it to be the same person, based on later Census and death records indicating Elizabeth's age. (familysearch.org reference)
  • People didn't move much, so they are likely to have stayed in this village or the next one (I have several generations of other branches of this family that stayed in Swanscombe or neighbouring Greenhithe their whole lives; we're talking about farm laborers with no means to move elsewhere). According to FreeBMD, Artilian (or Artillion) died in the Deptford district of Kent in 1850, which includes Swanscombe.
  • I have other christening records of other children of John and Artilian also from Swanscombe, dated after Elizabeth would have been born, so the family stayed there.
  • But I don't have any direct evidence that they are the same person (e.g. witnesses to the marriage including her parents or brother, or a death certificate with parents' names included), and I can't prove that there wasn't another Elizabeth Butcher born in that village around the same time (although I can't find one), or that this wasn't a case where the local lad married someone from two villages over. After all, John and Artilian were married in Horton Kirby, seven miles away.

Is this enough to say that this is the right Elizabeth Butcher, and if not, how should I represent this uncertainty? Is it enough to notate my record for Elizabeth with a comment?

  • I wonder who was Mary BUTCHER apparently christened at the same time and place (familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/NXW4-RHC). When Mary married Thomas WAKELEY on 19 Oct 1829, John BUTCHER was a witness. (freereg.org.uk/cgi/…). Can you link with Elizabeth in later life?
    – Fortiter
    Commented Oct 31, 2012 at 6:43
  • @Fortiter - I've got quite a lot on Elizabeth because of her marriage to James Vallins (she later started using the name Charlotte, but it's definitely the same person based on prior family research and documents that I am picking up on). Mary must have been her twin sister: the familysearch.org register clearly shows them both being christened on the same day.
    – Verbeia
    Commented Oct 31, 2012 at 7:05
  • 2
    I am a disadvantage since I haven't yet looked into any England-based ancestors. Please correct me if I am wrong. In 18th & 19th Century New York, in some religions, children were not necessarily baptized as neonates, but as older children. Therefore, the fact that siblings were baptized on the same day didn't automatically mean that they were twins. Commented Dec 18, 2013 at 2:23
  • "According to FreeBMD, Artilian (or Artillion) died in the Deptford district of Kent in 1850, which includes Swanscombe." Have you gotten the certificate since the question was posted? Or checked the British Newspaper Archive for any notice about a death? BNA gives 15 free credits for registering, good for three page views. britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk That might yield more information.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Dec 25, 2013 at 15:30

5 Answers 5


It is the exception rather than the rule that I am able to review just two ancient/historical records and conclude "these records are about the same person" from the information provided in the four corners of those documents.

As your question highlights and others have explained in their answers, the notion of one's identity goes beyond documenting names, dates and places. As Tom and Sue have answered already, we all form hypothesis that we set out to prove. Likewise, that there are difference in the work we do to develop the hypothesis and also in the standards of proof to which we hold ourselves.

Where do I begin?

  • Start by asking a specific, genealogically-relevant question. In this case, rather than "are these two the same people," you might ask, "Who are the parents of Elizabeth Butcher who married James Vallins in Swanscombe, Kent, England on 8 December 1827?" (It does sort of cut through to the core of the hypothesis, doesn't it.)

  • Focus your research on the question. I know this often helps me work from the known to the unknown (rather than travel a long route "down a [wrong] rabbit hole." In my case, this mean I would work to locate all the information about Elizabeth (Butcher) Vallins--(a) Records about the couple and this wife of James Vallins, about her children and possibly about their children (Elizabeth's grandchildren).* I would consult the area histories, land record, probate records, court records ...

*Note: Although the research may be extended, you are researching those to whom you are really believed to be related.

Many helpful suggestions are made by Tom Jones in his course, "[Inferential Genealogy]." This course was discussed on Genealogy.SE HERE and HERE.

To conduct thorough research requires a plan.

  1. Know thy extant collections/source availability.
  2. Develop a plan for conducting research in those materials.
  3. Develop a method for keeping track of the work you do with the various collections.

As to the latter item, I log/create research notes about the collections and source materials. This includes that if I am extracting the record about her marriage, I usually make a list of other Butcher and Vallins marriages the same place at the relevant time. Circumstances vary by place and surname, but assuming it is practical, I make similar lists for births, estates, land transfers, court records, news items, cemetery records ...

But .. but, how will I know?

My short and sweet answer is, "Write up the logic and reasoning for your conclusion; document that work." For me, the process of writing down my logic and reasoning helps to clarify my evidence from what are otherwise "leaps of faith."

Even better, in Jones' Inferential Genealogy, he recommends developing a biographical write up about your conclusions. In this case, your written proof (above) is probably just one of the sources to which you will refer. A biographical writeup (a genealogy) has the benefit of placing the different family members in context; it forces me to examine just how thorough my research has been, too.

As for the biographic write up, Elizabeth Shown Mills has a newer QuickSheet available, "The Historical Biographer's Guide to the Research Process (4 pp.)" I have not worked with this material, but given your question, the outlined section, "The identity triangulation model," seems particularly on target:

A supplemental study guide. Leads researchers through four models upon which sound research is based:

  • The Research Process Model
  • The Research Analysis Model
  • The Identity Triangulation Model
  • The Reliability Model

An additional reference you might what to investigate:

Taeh Osborne, "Do You Have Enough Proof?" April 2011, Boise Area Family History Conference. [Link broken as of 2 December 2013]

Thomas W. Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof (Arlington, Virginia: National Genealogical Society, 2013).

  • Gene, the link to the Osborne PDF results in a 404 File not found error; a Google search turns up the conference brochure with the name of the talk on the schedule, and this answer on SE.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Dec 2, 2013 at 2:33
  • Note too that Elizabeth Shown Mills has Quicklessons posted on the website for Evidence Explained, e.g. QuickLesson 16: Speculation, Hypothesis, Interpretation & Proof is at evidenceexplained.com/content/…
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Dec 17, 2013 at 16:07
  • 2
    Following links radiating from Jan Murphy's suggested site, I found this PDF document of an article written by Elizabeth Shown Mills, "A Template for Evaluating Evidence", published in "Genealogical Computing". It provides an outline: historicpathways.com/download/templateforee.pdf Commented Dec 18, 2013 at 5:43
  • Adding a note for a recent BCG webinar by Pamela Boyer Sayre, CG, CGL, FUGA: Enough is Enough. Or Is It? familytreewebinars.com/download.php?webinar_id=499 Syllabus and chat log are free -- webinar available for purchase or by sub.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Nov 22, 2016 at 18:42

First, assess the sources of information you have already gathered.

Have you examined Elizabeth Butcher's baptism and marriage in the original parish register (or an image of it), or are you relying on the online familysearch index entry? Indexes do not contain all the information, so do look at the most original version that you can obtain.

Familysearch search results are drawn from an array of different sources, and its coverage is far from complete. Check the source of the entry by looking up the film number in the catalogue. The Swanscombe birth and marriage film number is 1473687, which is derived from a microfilm copy of the original register (this is good). The film number for John and Artillan' marriage is 0599898, which is derived from a published book containing transcripts or abstracts from Horton Kirby parish registers. It may be a good and complete copy, but you can't be sure of that.

Check your assumptions. I disagree with your statement that people did not move much and farm laborers did not have the means to move. Urbanisation accelerated from the 1850s, but did happen before then. Thousands of poor people emigrated in the 1830s and 1840s with assistance from the parish. Farm labourers followed work opportunities at a local level. In this context, seven miles between John & Artillan's place of marriage and later residence does not seem too far. I suggest a wider search of adjoining parishes.

It sounds like you have quite a lot more information than you have shared here. Organising all the information relevant to Elizabeth in a timeline can be helpful for picking out items that do not fit and seeing trends. You may find you have much more than you thought. What records have you missed? Have you checked burials?

The apparent lack of other Elizabeth Butchers found can be used as supporting evidence, but be careful about exactly what records were searched (note my comments on incomplete indexes).

There may not be a 'smoking gun' piece of direct evidence, but the accumulation of independant indirect evidence can build a strong case. We only really make preliminary conclusions, and update them when new evidence come to light.

  • Thanks for this thoughtful answer. I have seen John and Artilian's marriage record in handwritten form as a scan, as well as a PDF of the printed and indexed register it came from, but not yet of Elizabeth's christening. I have a lot of information about Elizabeth's married life, but nothing else to show definitively that John and Artilian were her parents and not some other Elizabeth's parents. I worry that I might go down a rabbit hole of the wrong family.
    – Verbeia
    Commented Oct 31, 2012 at 12:45

In general terms, my strategy goes something like this:

  1. Assume that some degree of movement is possible. (I am going to define how big? No, sorry, but a couple of parishes movement is certainly possible in Cheshire - I've no feeling for how big Kent's parishes are, and of course, in urban cities like Bristol or London, then the answer in parishes and / or miles is different again).

  2. Once you've settled on the area you need to review, are there any Elizabeth Butchers baptised in those parishes? You need to cover each of the parishes. If there are more than one, somehow you will need to decide which (if any) is yours - see later. Even if there is only one, as you rightly point out, there might be another born in the area who wasn't baptised. This gives you one or more candidates.

  3. Now I look in the opposite direction as it were.... Given each of the candidates you found, what are their potential fates? To do this, I'd look (in the same area) for burials of Elizabeth Butchers, marriages of Elizabeth Butchers, censuses of Elizabeth Butcher (or married versions of her), wills, taxes, etc., etc. As much data as you can find in practice. (The Genealogical Proof Standard refers to a "Reasonably exhaustive search" - a key word there is reasonable.). Remember that in the UK, you can be unbaptised, unmarried but it's quite difficult not to die and be buried.

  4. Now that you've got a list of (say) 3 Elizabeth Butchers being baptised and (say) 3 fates of Elizabeth Butchers, can you line them up? For instance, does the census data for one refer to a very specific village as her birthplace, that is reflected in the residence on a baptism? If so, it's reasonable to believe that they are the same person. Leaves us (say) 2 baptisms and 2 fates. Maybe one dies as a child and the name of the name of the father on the burial matches another baptism. Gets us down to 1 baptism and 1 fate in our theoretical example. (For anyone counting off the GPS bullet points, this is "Analysis and correlation of the collected information") If there are 3 baptisms and 3 fates, this is as good as it gets to showing there's no unbaptised Elizabeth.

  5. Another tactic to follow if you have a name that's amenable to it (i.e. not Smith) is to look for all the Butcher families in the area - if there's only one Mr Butcher getting married in the area and era, there's less chance of an unbaptised Elizabeth).

  6. Now - double check - play devil's advocate.... Did you check different spellings? Are there any issues? Dodgy ages on the census, for instance, that give you pause for doubt? (The GPS asks for "Resolution of conflicting evidence").

  7. Don't forget to write this all up (GPS: "Soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion") and keep it somewhere with your research, even if it's clear who the parents are.

Of course, if Mr Murphy is around, you'll have one more fate than baptisms!


There are no simple, cook book rules you can apply to answer questions like this. You are asking how to do genealogy. The generic answer is to collect all the information you can that may bear on the persons you are researching. You may be trying to collect that information in difficult cases for the rest of your life.

At some point you may have found enough information that you feel able to make statements about the persons mentioned in the information, about who they really were. You decide what you believe is true. One test of being at the decision point is whether you can put together a well-reasoned argument that would convince other knowledgable persons. Rarely will you ever know you are 100% correct. You must consider most conclusions as only hypotheses, hypotheses that can be proven wrong at any time a new item of information is found.

There is no hard and fast criteria for surety or quality of your conclusions. All conclusions must be based on the preponderance of the evidence, and the evidence can be so different in different cases, that you cannot hope to mechanistically apply numbers or percentage points to the evidence. It is up to you to decide where you are along the surety scale. When you write things up you are often forced to use weasel phrases (e.g., "She may be the Margaret, wife of Joshua Bacon, mentioned in the will of of Thomas Lambert").

  • Thanks for this. I'm an economist by profession, so this approach sounds very familiar. Being new to this I was wondering if there were best practices or common strategies.
    – Verbeia
    Commented Oct 31, 2012 at 12:46
  • Interestingly Tom, it seems BCG abandoned the 'preponderance of evidence' concept fairly recently (bcgcertification.org/resources/prepond.html). I must do some reading to catch up on their revised thinking.
    – ACProctor
    Commented Oct 31, 2012 at 13:06
  • Tony, just read the page. Apparently the BCG decided not to use the term because it is "confusing," not because it is a bad idea. How such an obvious wording of such an obvious concept can be considered confusing is beyond me! Commented Oct 31, 2012 at 19:41

For part 2 of the question (recording your degree of confidence), there are schemes used in other fields, but not much in genealogy.

While there are recommended terms such as "possibly" and "unlikely", and some software products use simple integers, none of these has any mathematical backing to them.

A workable scheme for quantifying your degree of confidence must acknowledge the fact that you will want to change it if new evidence emerges. The mathematical field for this is known as Bayesian probabilities, and a discussion can be found at: You're Probably Right.

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