“Best Evidence”
When and Where Records No Longer Exist


A Limited Statement

By John Scott Davenport, Ph.D.


Genealogical Research discipline requires that Ancestry and Family Orders and Compositions be rigorously documented from Primary Records before a relationship can be legitimately claimed.  That is as it should be, providing Primary Records exist.  But what do you do when those records no longer exist? Where a courthouse fire destroyed all or most public records prior to the fire? Where an army--British, Union, or Confederate--made record destruction a part of its warfare?  Where an ignorant County Clerk cleared out the old files by taking them to the dump?  Where penurious uses of crude or cheap papers and watery inks have resulted in rotted or illegible records?  Where improper storage has resulted in water damage and/or rodent and/or insect damage?   Where a lack of custodial care has resulted in public archives being pilfered, taken home, and/or damaged by scissors or alterations?  (The writer here has encountered all of these situations in more than forty years of courthouse and archives research.)


It is a shibboleth of genealogical research that where partial record destruction occurred, the loss included the precise record that the searcher needed in order to complete identification.


How can you do rigid documentation, as Genealogical Research Methodology requires, when there are no records or only partial records extant?  Obviously, you cannot. 


In such instances, you can throw up your hands in despair, admit defeat, and leave that ancestral identification in limbo.   Or, you can do a “Best Evidence” report.


Best Evidence is simply using whatever secondary records can be found, such as bibles, diaries, journals, newspapers, account books, letters, etc, all validated to highest possible degree.  Bible records can be, and have been, altered, and are not sacrosanct.  The difficulty of “Best Evidence” research is that each item to be used must be vetted, or validated, itself before its content can be given credence.  Then too, evidence obtained from secondary records needs to be corroborated before it can be given full credibility.  Then, using formal logic, the “Best Evidence” finding must be connected to primary record reality by a rationale properly qualified as to what the “Best Evidence” is.  The result is an identification based on Circumstantial Evidence.


Circumstantial Evidence is a combination of Primary Documentation and Best Evidence and should be clearly identified as to what it is.


This is an over simplistic statement of a complex procedure, but, short of a dissertation, will have to suffice.


Rigorous genealogists despise “Best Evidence” research because despite whatever reservations “Best Evidence” genealogists may use to qualify their less than full discipline identifications, neophytes, unskilled family searchers, and graspers at straws rarely note the caveats accompanying “Best Evidence.” Generally, being more interested in answers rather in quality of answer, they give Best Evidence the same credence that belongs to rigorously documented Primary Source genealogy.  It is possible to have rigorously documented “Best Evidence” genealogy, but the identifications are only as good as the documented source, and secondary is secondary regardless of the scholarship.


 Yet, without Best Evidence research it would be impossible to have any genealogical research of ancestries in the Colonial South because of the record destructions in Virginia and southwards by fires, the Revolution, and the Civil War.  More than one Certified Genealogist has broke his/her pick in trying to achieve identifications in the South using methods that worked perfectly in New England.  Benedict Arnold is well documented in New England records, but as a British General he led an expedition that burned and destroyed scads of Virginia records on the Lower James River and as high up as Richmond in the latter days of the Revolution.


Copyright © 2008 by Dr. John Scott Davenport -- All Rights Reserved