22 July 2013

It's the Analysis that Matters-Direct or Otherwise

Sometimes it's easy to get a little too bogged down in definitions and lose sight of the real problem that caused us to get caught up in the definitions in the first place. Such is the case with the genealogical use of the terms "direct" and indirect." Terms are just ways to help us categorize information and sometimes the use of terms can be a hindrance as well as a help.

In genealogical research, it is the analysis that really matters.That analysis must be clear and must reflect contemporary law and contemporary record practice. Your analysis will not be faulty simply because you fail to use the terms "direct" or "indirect," although it does assist the researcher to understand what those terms mean. 

The marriage record of John Smith indicates that he married Susan Jones on 23 June 1839 in Totallylost County, Anystate.

That record provides direct evidence of the date and county of marriage--that's because the record states those items specifically. If it makes it easier for the researcher to use the phrase "direct evidence," then use that. It's just as easy to say "the marriage record says." 

The Smith-Jones marriage record provides indirect evidence of the age of John Smith and Susan Jones on 23 June 1839. It is indirect because the marriage record does not state their ages and, in the absence of any comment regarding consent of parent or guardian, John and Susan are assumed to be of the age of consent. The marriage record and date of the marriage, combined with the lack of consent and the fact that in Anystate a male had to be twenty-one years of age allows us to infer that John was born before 23 June 1818. Because we used information beyond what was stated specifically in the record, it can be said that the marriage record provides indirect evidence of John's range of birthdates (before 23 June 1818). 

Is it necessary to use that phrase "indirect evidence?" I don't think so. The genealogical world will not come to an end and the genealogy police will not come knocking on your door.  But there is something that I think is extremely necessary to include: an easy-to-follow discussion of how the birth date range was obtained. That discussion should include:
  • A complete, accurate citation to the marriage record
  • A complete, accurate transcription of the marriage record
    • the date and place are explicitly stated in the record
  • the following assumptions that are necessary for the analysis (after all, John's age is not on the record):
    • that no consent given for either party means John was of age--this appears consistent after viewing other marriages filed at the same time as John's)
    • that the marriage age in Anystate was twenty-one at time of marriage
    • that John was not lying about his age
If you choose not to call this argument "indirect" that's fine. It is also find if you wish to call it indirect. Your analysis will still be sound and others can follow your argument and decide whether or not to agree with you. 

And understanding your thought process and reasoning is what it is all about. Just saying that the marriage proves John was born before 23 June 1818 indirectly--without giving the reasons discussed above--is weak. The discerning genealogist wants to know why and you should too. 


(1) If you wish to apply for genealogical certification or submit articles for publication, then you must follow currently accepted practices for use of the words "direct" and "indirect."
(2) If the Smiths had married later and the marriage application had stated their age, then that would have been direct information because no inference was necessary to obtain their age from the marriage application. 

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