Scarce Evidence on Early Lines

Yvette has asked:

Dear editor,

One thing I've heard Tom Jones say is that one record is never enough to prove anything, even when using reliable records, since you don't know if it's in the 99% that is correct or the 1% that is incorrect. But what if one record is all you have been able to find? 

I am currently researching a family in the Netherlands in the 1500s. Evidence for this time and place is scarce. I've found a feudal register that had consecutive entries for the vassals who were entitled to hold the land. I will use fake data here because the client has not authorized me to share the details:

1515: Pieter Claesse by transfer of Cornelis de Wit.
1541: Leendert Pieters, as heir and son of Pieter Claesse.
1568: Pieter Leenders, as heir and son of Leendert Pieters.

This one source provides direct evidence of three generations of men (the "son of" part is in the actual register). Their patronymics provide indirect evidence to support this: the father's first name match the son's patronymics. The spacing of the different entries is consistent with them being a generation apart. And feudal laws state that estates are inherited by the eldest sons unless it is transferred to a stranger. So even though it's just one record, it consists of different pieces that fit together. You could even argue that this source consists of three different records; the three entries that were recorded at different dates. 

I have found some other records that mention Leendert Pieters and Pieter Leenders, but in isolation. I have not been able to find any other records for Pieter Claesse in this area, neither by himself nor with relatives. Just finding this one record is pretty remarkable for this time and place.

In this particular case, I feel that the conclusion that Leendert Pieters is the son of Pieter Claesse could meet the GPS, even though I only have one source (provided I meet the other criteria in the report). I would love to hear your opinion on this.  


Submitted byEEon Thu, 05/25/2017 - 10:10


Dr. Jones's guidance on this point is a longstanding rule in historical research. The problem lies in the way it is interpreted.  To say “one record is never enough to prove anything” is not the same as saying “one piece of direct evidence is never enough to prove anything.”

In the case you raise, you have one source that provides three different pieces of relevant information.  It provides one piece of direct evidence for each of two parental assertions. However, your evaluation of each is bringing to the table a variety of other records, particularly (1) feudal laws on estates and inheritances; and (2) conteporary records that provide indirect evidence about the identities ("personhood”) of each of the men whose father is asserted in that key source.

The five criteria of the proof standard (for the benefit of our readers) are these:

  1. Reasonably exhaustive research—which you say you have done (and knowing your personal standards, I definitely believe that!)
  2. Full identification of sources—which I’m sure you have done in your client report that you cannnot share
  3. Correlation and analysis of evidence—which you have done above and undoubtedly are doing in greater detail in the research report (incuding appropriate quotations from the feudal laws)
  4. Resolution of any contradiction in the evidence—which, if I understand you correctly, does not exist
  5. Written proof argument—which you’ve outlined above and will undoubtedly present in much fuller detail in your research report.

Given these criteria, you will have met the GPS. Different eras, different circumstances, and different records situations mean that differing amounts of records will be found. But the standard can still be met, even in the most meager circumstances.

The stumbling block for most researchers is Criteria 1 and the cause of the stumble is typically three-fold: (a) insufficient knowledge of records for the time and place; (b) a misunderstanding as to how much research and analysis must go into “reasonably exhaustive research”; or (c) an unwillingness to make the investment in learning a and conducting b.

Submitted byyhoitinkon Thu, 05/25/2017 - 15:59

Thank you so much! That's what I thought but the "one record" comment made me pause. And yes, the report will include all the background information, correlation, analysis and proof argument. 

I am still wrapping up the research and just found out about another record group for this town that may have more information. They are the records of the dike reeves, who were in charge of water management in the area. As feudal land holders, the family probably had to pay dike tax, so with any luck I will be able to tie these three men to the same neighborhood or even the same property using those records. But it's good to know I can still consider my case proven if this new line of research does not yield any usable evidence. 

Submitted byyhoitinkon Fri, 05/26/2017 - 01:19

Ha! The dike reeve records turned up a record that showed a Pieter Claesse living in the area around that time. It does not give any details about location or neighbors that can be correlated with other records, but at least I've got independent records for all three men now that show that men by that name were living in that place at that time.

Submitted byEEon Sat, 05/27/2017 - 13:55

It's just amazing what the first criteria of the proof standard can accomplish.  Another salute here to reasonably exhaustive research!