The Four Cornerstones of Genealogy

Last week, we explored the risks of trusting family tradition. First we looked at the reasons why problems exist. Then we offered a game plan to track those traditions and test their validity. 

The “four cornerstones” of genealogy serve us well in our quests to find the truth about a family tradition:

  1. Total objectivity
  2. Careful documentation
  3. Thorough research
  4. Evidence analysis and correlation

Let’s look at each one separately:


This cornerstone requires us to go beyond family pride, to critically evaluate each story, each document, each testimony, and each person—without favor or bias.


By today’s standards, this means

  • for each and every statement of fact that is not “public knowledge,” we must identify our specific source.

EXAMPLE: If we state the Civil War started in 1861, that’s public knowledge. It's easily found if we don’t know it. On the other hand, if we assert that great-uncle Albert was killed in the Civil War, that requires supporting evidence from a sound source.

  • for each source, we add at least a brief description by which we can measure its strengths and weaknesses.

EXAMPLE: We don’t just say that a fact came from “Baltimore Catholic church records.” We clearly indicate whether we have a photocopy of the original document or we are relying upon a potentially flawed derivative such as an abstract or certificate. If we have a photocopy of the original, or viewed it ourselves, we cite the specific book and page. 

EXAMPLE: When using a history or family history, we don’t just cite the book. We also note whether the author identifies his or her own source for each fact we are taking from that book.


By today’s standards,  research does not mean using whatever is conveniently available on the Internet or in a local library. It means

  • using all existing records for the time and place
  • going beyond indexes, databases, abstracts, etc., to get the original documents from which we can glean everything left out of those indexes, databases, and abstracts
  • studying records created by the ancestor’s friends, associates, and neighbors (their FAN Club) to glean “hidden data”
  • doing contextual research on laws, politics, religion, etc.

By today’s standards, proof does not mean identifying a source that tells us exactly what we hoped to find. That source would be just one piece of evidence and no one piece of evidence, alone, can be proof. Proof lies in the body of evidence that we accumulate. Building that body of evidence is accomplished by testing each source and each piece of information against the standards represented on EE's Research Analysis Process Map.


HOW TO CITE: Elizabeth Shown Mills, "The Four Cornerstones of Genealogy," blog post, QuickTips: The Blog @ Evidence Explained ( : posted 6 July 2019).