Evidence is what we use to answer our research questions and establish conclusions. Once we have evaluated and analyzed the data we find in various sources we need to determine if the information helps to answer our research question. If it does, we use it as evidence to answer our question and support our conclusion. Evidence is classified as direct, indirect, or negative, and each type can be used to draw conclusions.
Direct evidence is that which completely answers the question. For example, if our question is “Who were John Smith’s parents?” and we find a church baptism record that states he was the “son of Ebenezer Smith and Mary Jones,” this would be direct evidence.
Indirect evidence is the complete opposite in that it doesn’t completely answer the question. For example, if our research question was “When was John Smith, son of Ebenezer Smith and Mary Jones, born?” and the same church baptism record only provides a baptism date, we could consider this indirect evidence. Although he would have needed to be born before that baptism date, the information does not provide his actual birth date.
Negative evidence is a situation where information does not exist where you expect to find it. For example, you have tracked a man in the census from 1880 through 1920, each time living in the same town in New York, but cannot locate him in that town come 1930. This absence of information could lend itself to the conclusion that the man died between the 1920 and 1930 censuses or that he relocated.
When assembling evidence to answer our research question, we tend to make assumptions based on the information we have collected, our general knowledge, and or research experience. Therefore, it is important to remember that we can make assumptions that are incorrect. That’s why we offer our Skill-Building: Breaking Down Brick Walls course, to help you with your evidence and avoid brick walls. Check out this course and many others with The National Institute for Genealogical Studies.