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  • Weighing the Evidence

    by Henry B. Hoff

    Much has been written about genealogical proof, and the Board for Certification of Genealogists has devised a Genealogical Proof Standard (see sidebar on page 34). Nevertheless, since every genealogist is different and every genealogical situation is different, there are still many instances when genealogists disagree on whether to categorize an identification or a connection as definite — or with a modifying word such as probably, likely, perhaps, or possibly.

    In this article I present some typical genealogical situations in which genealogists often disagree, and then give examples for you, the readers, to decide upon.[1]

    Identifying immigrants

    What does it take to convince you, for example, that a man who arrived in America in the colonial period is identical with a person of that name in England? In a 2005 article I described several research methods for finding English origins,[2] and typically identifying an English (and European) immigrant involves more than one method.

    In 2008 an article on Thomas Betterly appeared in the Register.[3] Thomas immigrated to North Carolina by 1715, married in Boston in 1720, and returned to North Carolina, where he died in 1729. He was a feltmaker in North Carolina, and a Thomas Betterley was apprenticed as a feltmaker in 1701 in London. The article reproduces the 1710 signature of a Thomas Betterley in London and compares it to his signatures in North Carolina. The authors point out that Betterley was a “very uncommon surname.”

    How would you decide? Definite, probable, or something else?

    Many Register articles have treated seventeenthcentury immigrants to New England who came with children. If the names and approximate ages of the children in England match those in America, a definite identification can often be made. If only one or two children are born in England and have common first names, you have only a possible match — and you will need other evidence to make a definite match. But if you have, say, four children and the names and ages agree, then you may have a definite match, especially if a will names the children in order.[4]

    One of the traditional ways of identifying an immigrant is referring to an English will specifying that a particular beneficiary is living in New England. This, however, requires that every contemporary of that name in New England must be considered. Sometimes that process is easy,[5] but sometimes the wrong person has been misidentified for decades.[6]

    Identifying persons of the same name

    Frequently at least two people of the same name are in the same place at the same time. If you are lucky, they were carefully identified — but often they were not. Sometimes a family favors a particular first name, and articles have dealt with two, twelve, and even twentyone men of the same name in a family (though not all living at the same time).[7] Identification problems are not always fully solved,[8] but such articles pave the way for future researchers.

    Just as frequently two or three women with the same name pose identification problems. In the 1690s two women named Mary Loomis were married in Windsor, Connecticut. One married John Buell on 20 November 1695, the other married Ebenezer Dibble on 16 July 1696. Three potentially relevant women named Mary Loomis were born, on 20 March 1672/3, 14 December 1677, and 5 January 1679/80. While there are two accounts of the Loomis family of Windsor, neither is satisfactory, and neither gives a rationale for assigning which Mary to which husband.[9] According to her gravestone, Mary (Loomis) Buell died 4 November 1768, aged 90;[10] her last child was born 22 May 1723.[11] These two pieces of information show that Mary (Loomis) Buell was the Mary born 14 December 1677, or less likely, the youngest Mary (who is consistently identified as the Mary Loomis who married in Windsor 6 May 1708 Joseph Barber).

    What would you decide for the identification of Mrs. Buell, based on this information?

    When there is no other family with that surname

    A unique surname is helpful, but often it does not solve all problems. William Whitredge or Whittered, whose surname appears to be unique in colonial New England, immigrated to Massachusetts in 1635 with wife Elizabeth and son Thomas.[12] William had other children born in Essex County, including sons John and Samuel. Were John and Samuel both killed in King Philip’s War? On 18 July 1676 in Salem, “John Whitterig, being slain in the war against the Indians, dying intestate, administration was granted to John Baxter” [who had married Abigail Whitredge]. A John Whitredge died 19 May 1676 in Massachusetts during King Philip’s War.

    On the other hand, less evidence is available for Samuel Whitredge. He was living in 1672 when mentioned in his brother Thomas’s will, and a Samuel Whitredge died 18 September 1675 in Massachusetts during King Philip’s War.

    Was William’s son John the John Whitredge who died in 1676? Was William’s son Samuel the Samuel Whitredge who died in 1675? What would you decide?

    Proving military service

    As demonstrated by the preceding section, assignment of military service to a particular man is often unclear. Sometimes the records themselves are the problem. A 2009 article showed that military files for South Carolina had placed papers for different Revolutionary War soldiers named Jonathan Turner in a single file, and that “derivative sources had merged the identities of three Jonathans.”[13]

    Proving the parents of a wife

    A typical genealogical problem is whether the wife of so-and-so was the daughter of a known couple. Anna Flint married Timothy Dwight on 9 January 1664/5 in Dedham. Several sources identify her as Hannah Flint, born in Braintree 7 January 1643/4, daughter of Rev. Henry Flint. However, Hannah Flint married in Braintree 15 November 1662 John Dassett, who lived until 1699.[14] Rev. Henry Flint had a brother, Thomas Flint of Concord (died 1653), whose children have not been fully identified, largely because his will is uninformative. There were other families named Flint in Massachusetts, but only in Salem.[15]

    Could Anna (Flint) Dwight be a daughter of Thomas Flint of Concord? What would you decide?

    Putting the pieces together

    Frequently articles involve putting several arguments together to reach a conclusion. A good example of this is a 2009 article proving a father-son relationship in Wilmington, North Carolina. The author presented seven different arguments supporting the father-son relationship and, with reference to the Genealogical Proof Standard, concluded that “[e]ven without direct evidence, the case is overwhelming.”[16]

    But rarely is genealogical evidence overwhelming, and frequently we have to use careful language and words beginning with the letter P, such as probably, perhaps, and possibly. You be the judge of when and how to use them in your own research.


    1 For further opportunities to weigh the evidence, see the series “Enigmas” in The American Genealogist since April 1991, as well as many of the articles in genealogical journals such as the Register.

    2 Henry B. Hoff, “Methods for Identifying the English Origins of American Colonists,” New England Ancestors 6:5–6 (Holiday 2005):31–32.

    3 Lawrence McGrath, Esther Whitney Mott, and Phylicia Salisbury, ”The Probable English Origins of Thomas Betterley,” Register 162 (Jan. 2008):8–14.

    4 See, for example, Edgar Joseph Shaw, “The English Origins of Roger and Ann Shaw of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Hampton, New Hampshire,” Register 158 (Oct. 2004):309–18.

    5 See, for example, Cathy Soughton, “Thomas1 Burnham of Long Crendon, Buckinghamshire, and Hartford, Connecticut,” Register 166 (Jan. 2012):5–10, at 5 n. 2.

    6 See, for example, Robert Charles Anderson, The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England, 1620–1633, 3 vols. (Boston: NEHGS, 1995), 1:581 (John Drake), and Leslie Mahler, “The English Origins of Edmund1 Quincy of Boston and His Servants, Thomas and Katherine (Greene) Makins,” Register 157 (Jan. 2003):31–33.

    7 Joseph Crook Anderson II, “Eleven Thomas Abbotts of Berwick, Maine, and Vicinity,” The American Genealogist 70 (April 1995):85–95; William B. Saxbe, Jr., “Twenty-One Jabez Bowens,” Rhode Island Roots 36 (June 2010):57–78.

    8 See, for example, Nancy J. Pennington, “Three Men Named Isaac Phelps with Connections to Windsor, Connecticut,” Register 163 (April 2009):116–33.

    9 Elias Loomis [and Elisha S. Loomis], Descendants of Joseph Loomis in America, 2 vols. (Berea, Ohio: Elisha S. Loomis, 1908), 1:132, 133, 134; Henry R. Stiles, The History of Ancient Windsor, Genealogies and Biographies, 2 vols. (Hartford, Conn.: Case, Lockwood & Brainard, 1892; repr. Somersworth, N.H.: New Hampshire Publishing Co., 1976), 2:434, 435. Both sources assign the oldest Mary as the wife of John Buell.

    10 Register 1 (April 1847):196; 22 (April 1868):198.

    11 Barbour Collection of Connecticut Vital Records, citing Litchfield Vital Records, 1:5.

    12 David A. Whittredge, “The English Origins of William1 Whitredge of Ipswich, Massachusetts,” Register 164 (April 2010):139–44; Robert Charles Anderson, The Great Migration: Immigrants to New England, 1634–1635: Volume VII, T–Y (Boston: NEHGS, 2011), 374–80 (William Whittered).

    13 Rachal Mills Lennon, “Jonathan Turner—More than a Name: A Carolina Case Study in Dissecting Records,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 97 (March 2009):17–28, at 20–21.

    14 Robert Charles Anderson, George F. Sanborn Jr., and Melinde Lutz Sanborn, The Great Migration: Immigrants to New England, 1634–1635: Volume II, C–F (Boston: NEHGS, 2001), 534– 37 (Rev. Henry Flint had no other daughter with a name like Anna); Waldo Chamberlain Sprague, Genealogies of the Families of Braintree, Massachusetts, CD-ROM (Boston: NEHGS, 2001), card 1344R (Dassett).

    15 James Savage, Genealogical Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England, 4 vols. (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1860–62), 2:174–75; Clarence A. Torrey, New England Marriages Prior to 1700, 3 vols. (Boston: NEHGS, 2011); also CD-ROM (Boston: NEHGS, 2001) and database online at

    16 Jeffrey L. Haines, “Putting the Pieces Together to Solve the Parentage Puzzle: Using Indirect Evidence to Prove the Link between Oliver L. Kelley and George H. Kelley of Wilmington,” The North Carolina Genealogical Society Journal 35 (Nov. 2009):293–314, at 307–14. An important aspect to the article was that Oliver (the father) was born in Norwich, Connecticut, and George (the son) was born in Illinois.


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