The Proof Is In the Writing

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Image: Antonio Litterio, "Power of Words"  via Wikimedia Commons

Image: Antonio Litterio, “Power of Words” via Wikimedia Commons

As genealogists, we focus heavily on proof—proof of relationships, identity, and circumstances. To successfully establish proof, we must meet the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS), which requires us to present our evidence in writing. Discussions of proof generally take three forms—proof statements, proof summaries, and proof arguments. They vary in length, depending on the complexity of the evidence being presented. The common denominator is that they all must meet the GPS.

A proof statement is a presentation of proof based on direct evidence. It does not require much explanation. A proof statement can be a simple sentence or piece of information included in a larger work. Although proof statements are brief, they are fully source-cited and thoroughly researched. A proof summary is more complex than a proof statement, and it is used to present evidence that requires some degree of explanation. Proof summaries are used when several pieces of evidence are needed to draw a conclusion, and when conflicts of evidence are minor.

Often, conclusions drawn from several proof summaries are pulled together to develop a proof argument, the most complex type of proof discussion. Proof arguments are used to present evidence when a genealogical question cannot easily be answered. Generally, proof arguments respond to a research question with indirect evidence, or by resolving significant conflicting evidence. Proof arguments tend to be lengthier than proof summaries and proof statements because of the complex nature of the evidence they present.

Proof Discussions in Practice
National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ) case studies are proof arguments—including Mary Foote W. Lund’s “Parents of Stephen Preston Bennett of Franklin County, Virginia,” which appeared in the March 2014 issue of NGSQ. In her case study, Lund uses indirect evidence to answer her research question: who were the parents of Stephen Preston Bennett? Stephen, who went by the name Preston, was born circa 1804 and married Polly Belcher in 1829 in Franklin County, Virginia.

Proof statements and proof summaries are abundant within Lund’s case study. One example of a simple proof statement can be found in the article’s introduction on page 6: “Preston and Polly lived in Franklin County through 1859, when Polly died.” For this proof statement, the author cites census records and a chancery bill (footnote 7) as evidence. The statement is simple enough that no detailed explanation of the evidence is needed. The source citations can stand alone.

Lund’s case study, like most found in NGSQ, presents several proof summaries. Each is a written presentation of several pieces of evidence that results in a conclusion. The discussion under the header “Preston’s Parents” on page 6 is a proof summary. Patsy Bennett was the only Bennett head-of-household enumerated in 1810 in Franklin County, Virginia, and her household included a male child of age to be Stephen Preston Bennett. Since Patsy was a nickname for Martha, and Martha Bennett was the widow of Micajah Bennett, we can draw the conclusion that Patsy Bennett, a candidate to be Preston’s mother, was the widow of Micajah Bennett.

Additional proof summaries presented in Lund’s case study result in several other conclusions that are crucial to the overall proof argument. One proof summary identifies the names of Preston Bennett’s siblings. Another establishes that Micajah Bennett also used the name Micajah Wheeler. Lund also proves that Micajah Wheeler and his wife Patsy had four children: Charrity, Preston, Willis, and Metilda Wheeler. These conclusions, drawn from proof summaries, don’t answer the primary research question. However, when considered together, they provide the framework for the proof argument that identifies Preston’s parentage.

Lund’s case study—or proof argument—is a comprehensive written work that meets the GPS and includes multiple proof statements and proof summaries. These discussions allow for simple and not-so-simple evidence to be pulled together and presented to establish the parentage of Stephen Preston Bennett.

As genealogists, we present our evidence in writing through the use of proof statements, proof summaries, and proof arguments. Only then can we know that we have reached a sound genealogical conclusion. Once we gain a solid understanding of proof statements, proof summaries, and proof arguments—and how they can work together—we may find that we already have the evidence needed to draw genealogical conclusions. The next step toward establishing genealogical proof is to present our evidence in writing. Do you have a proof discussion waiting to be written?

Click here to log in to the NGSQ Archive and view Lund’s case study.

  1. April 19, 2015 4:38 pm
  2. April 24, 2015 12:17 pm
    • April 27, 2015 9:15 pm

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