Visualizing Information for Analysis and Correlation


The first element of the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS)—reasonably exhaustive research[1]—calls for digging into the circumstances of a research subject’s life, and identifying sources and strategies that may help provide an answer to a specific research question. Sometimes, even after carefully planning a research path and exhausting a variety of relevant and high-quality sources, we don’t uncover enough information to develop a conclusion or test a theory. Other times, our research results in a variety of records containing information that may pertain to several different individuals with the same name. In cases such as these, how can we effectively analyze the abundance of information discovered, and differentiate among same-name individuals to resolve our research problem?

Marci A. Despain, CG, AG, tackles this research dilemma in her case study, “Which Isaac Purnell was Esau’s Father? Unraveling Relationships in Wiltshire,” published in the June 2011 issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ). Esau Purnell was born circa 1781–1782 and baptized in 1796 in Wingfield, Wiltshire. Numerous records identify him as the son of Isaac and Ann Purnell, who lived in Studley, in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, at the time of Esau’s baptism.

In an effort to uncover Esau’s father Isaac’s identity, Despain examined bishop’s transcripts, deeds, tax assessments, poor rate books, census records, death-duty registers, directories, electoral rolls, estate administrations, prison records, quarter session records, wills, and parish registers for several religious denominations in fourteen Wiltshire parishes. Her research uncovered a tremendous number of birth, baptismal, marriage, death, burial, apprenticeship, and school records for individuals named Isaac Purnell, and individuals who were the children of a man named Isaac Purnell.

Keeping in mind her research focus—to identify which Isaac was the father of Esau—Despain sorted the vast amount of information she acquired into lists and tables. Using this visualization technique, she analyzed information from the records she uncovered, and was able to correlate that information with known details about Esau and his family. She was able to differentiate events pertaining to various individuals named Isaac Purnell, and arrived at a conclusion regarding the identity of Esau’s father.

The reasoning behind Despain’s conclusion is simple and logical—for example, she uses Esau’s age to determine a probable age for Isaac, and is able to eliminate all but one birth record, marriage record, and death record for Esau’s father based on age. He was evidently the man who was baptized in 1753 at Trowbridge, married Ann Bailey in 1780 at North Bradley, and died in 1838 at age 87 in Trowbridge. Likewise, she uses Isaac’s widower status and the process of elimination to determine that Esau’s father had to be the man who married Martha Moon in 1819; Esau’s mother Ann had died in 1818, and the other two Isaac Purnells’ wives were still living. These conclusions are not complex in nature, nor do they require extensive explanation. However, Despain must still present her interpretation of the information and rationalization of the evidence to meet the fifth element of the GPS (“a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion”) in her effort to prove Isaac’s identity.

Despain was also able to connect Esau to several siblings by determining the identity of Isaac Purnell. One brother was also named Isaac, and this connection provided further clarity to the information uncovered about various individuals named Isaac Purnell. Records related to the elder Isaac also provide some details about the next generation—his parents, John and Eleanor Purnell.

Despain faced a genealogical problem of identity—determining which Isaac Purnell was father to Esau Purnell. Her case study meets the GPS, but brings attention to the importance of two elements of the GPS—the analysis and correlation of information, and the written conclusion. The author resolved this question of identity by first performing reasonably exhaustive research, which resulted in a voluminous amount of information. She was then faced with making sense of it all, and used creative visualization techniques for effective analysis and correlation. Her written conclusion also relied upon those same visualizations to convey the information and logic she used to eliminate candidates and determine the identity of Esau’s father. The technique that Despain used made the process of analysis and correlation easier, and also offered a way to present a clear, understandable written explanation of the evidence.

[1] Genealogy Standards: Fiftieth Anniversary Edition, Kindle edition (New York, New York and Nashville, Tennessee: Ancestry.com/Turner Publishing Company, 2014), 239.

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  1. July 13, 2016 5:51 pm

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