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Skillbuilding: It’s Not That Hard to Write Proof Arguments


From OnBoard - Newsletter of the BCG
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Barbara Vines Little, CG, "It's Not That Hard to Write Proof Arguments ," OnBoard 15 (September 2009): 20-23.

From birth certificates to wills to DNA, genealogists look for proof. The Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) was established by the Board as a way to measure the success of that search. When determining the accuracy of a fact or relationship, we must answer one basic question: Does the accumulated evidence meet the Genealogical Proof Standard? In other words, is the decision to accept this fact or relationship based upon

• reasonably exhaustive research in reliable sources for all information that is or may be pertinent to the identity, relationship, event, or situation?
•  thorough and accurate citations of sources for each item of information?
• sound analysis and correlation of the collected information?
• resolution of any conflicts caused by items of evidence that contradict each other or the proposed solution?
• a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion, whose length is appropriate to the need?

Proof Arguments & Proof Summaries
Proof arguments and two types of proof summaries are used in presenting genealogical evidence. Each type is designed for a specific need.

List-style Proof Summary
This type of proof summary is used when we need only a straight-forward listing of the evidence. Appendix D, Example 1, of the BCG Genealogical Standards Manual illustrates the type. Lineage society applications are an excellent example of a situation in which a list-style proof summary is appropriate. We must present documents that show the birth, marriage, and death dates and places, as well as evidence of kinship between generations. The only “summary” we need to provide is a cover sheet that lists the documents and the fact or facts each “proves.”

Narrative-style Proof Summary
Ideally, for each fact or relationship, we find multiple pieces of evidence that all point to the same conclusion. When this occurs, we might present the evidence in either of two ways:

•  We can simply state the conclusion as a “fact,” within the narrative itself, and add a reference note citing all the sources that support the assertion in the text. Simply citing sources, however, may leave our readers uncertain as to what each cited document actually says.
•  Or, we can clarify the situation by writing into the narrative a summary of the evidence—one that discusses what each record contributes to the body of evidence.

The second option is known as a narrative-style proof summary. This type of summary is used for the Kinship Determination Project, when a kinship is based entirely on multiple, unconflicting pieces of direct evidence. (This option is not illustrated in the Standards Manual, published in 2000, but will be in the next edition.)

Proof Argument
Despite exhaustive research, we may find no document that explicitly states a critical fact, identity, or proof of relationship. However, our research might provide that evidence indirectly. Or multiple pieces of indirect evidence may strongly imply that some direct evidence errs.

Here is where the proof argument enters the picture. A proof argument consists of three parts. First, a statement to be proved (i.e., A is the child of B); second, a presentation of the evidence; and third, an explanation of how the accumulated evidence supports the proposed conclusion.

Appendix D, Example 2, of the Standards Manual provides an example of an extended proof argument—as do any number of articles in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly. Some of these are presented as case studies. Others are narrative genealogies with proof arguments embedded.

Proof arguments can be of any length. A narrative genealogy that covers multiple generations can present numerous situations in which proof arguments are needed. Some will require long discussions; others will be short. Regardless of length, however, such arguments should be integrated smoothly into the narrative—not relegated to reference notes.

Proof arguments do have to be true arguments, not just a listing of facts and sources.  The following example spotlights the differences between a proof argument and a narrative-style proof summary.

Comparing the Approaches
Our objective, let us say, is to prove that John Morris of Montgomery County, Kentucky, is the father of Reuben Morris of Orange County, Virginia. We have two documents: (1) John’s will in which he gives land to his son Reuben; and (2) Reuben’s subsequent deed of sale for that land, recorded in Montgomery County, Kentucky, identifying him as a resident of Orange County, Virginia.

A narrative-style proof summary of this information might need to do only two things. First, we might introduce and discuss the will and the deed. Second, we would discuss the depth and breadth of the search—including the efforts we had made to determine that there was only one Reuben Morris in Orange County at the time the deed was written.

If, however, there were multiple Reuben Morrises in the county, we would likely create a proof argument to support the choice we made between these same-name individuals.

Although proof arguments may be of any length, they do have to include details on the depth and breadth of the search. Unlike the theorems we worked with in geometry where, if we proved that A equaled B and B equaled C, then we have proved that C equaled A, in a genealogical proof argument we not only must present the needed evidence but also must note what records were searched and what evidence was looked for and not found.

Sample Proof Argument
Sidney (Withrow) Lusher was a typical wife of her era. No record gives the name of her father. However, careful analyses of a variety of records provide proof that she was the daughter of one Alderson Withrow of Fayette County, Virginia.

Sidney was born before birth records were recorded by the state of Virginia. No marriage record survives in Greenbrier County, where she and her husband Thomas Daniel Lusher lived in 1860,1 nor in the adjacent counties of Fayette, Monroe, or Nicholas. (Virginia couples of this era could marry by church bann or by license; even when licenses were obtained, the records often were not kept.) No death record survives at the state or county level. Her obituary, published in the Hinton (West Virginia) Daily News on 23 January 1918 provides us with her maiden name, year and place of birth, and date of marriage:

Mrs. Sidney Anne Lusher, whose maiden name was Withrow, died at the home of N. E. Reynolds [her son-in-law2] on Jan 18, at the age of 87 years, was born in Fayette County3 in 1831. She was married to Thomas D. Lusher4 Sept. 10, 1846…Those [children] still living are A. J. Lusher of Grassy Meadows [etc.]. …When about thirty years of age, sister Lusher professed conversion and united with the Lick Creek Baptist Church.

Exhaustive research on all Withrows in the deed, probate, tax, and census records of Fayette, Greenbrier, Nicholas, and Summers Counties did not provide evidence of Sidney’s parentage.5 A small 37-page pamphlet published about 1889 was the first link in the chain of evidence that identified Sidney’s parents. Titled Churches and Church Members of Fayette and Summers, it includes a brief history of the Lick Creek Missionary Baptist Church that was organized in 1832 with twenty-seven members. Also included in the pamphlet were brief biographies of members of some of the churches in the area. One was of particular interest: 6

Zachariah Wood is a member of the Lick Creek Baptist Church, into which he was received in 1860 by letter … his wife, Mrs. Eliza J. Wood…joined it in 1859.… Mrs. Wood is a daughter of Alderson Withrow, who joined the Lick Creek Baptist Church 25 years or more before his death; her mother whose maiden name was Phebe Skaggs …died some years ago having been a church member for 20 years.

The early records of the Lick Creek Baptist Church do not appear to have survived. However, copies of later church minutes and membership rolls have been deposited at the West Virginia Archives. Both sets of records include Zachariah Wood and Eliza J. Wood “formerly Eliza Withrow” in the church rolls.7 

Zachariah’s obituary supplies the final link to Sidney’s origin:8

Zachariah Woods [sic] of Green Sulphur, died Tuesday, January 25th, 1910, of pneumonia, aged 86 years. He passed away at the home of his nephew, A. J. Lusher, at Grassy Meadows.

Placing Sidney in the Alderson Withrow household as a sister to Eliza would make Sidney’s son Andrew Jackson Lusher the nephew of Eliza (Withrow) Wood and her husband Zachariah.

Like the other Withrows, Alderson has been studied extensively. He probably died about 1847 when he disappeared from the Fayette County personal property tax lists. No probate records were found for his estate. He married Phebe Skaggs in Nicholas County on 2 September 1822,9 and he appears on the 1830 census, aged 30–40, with a male and a female under five and a female aged 20–30.10 The 1840 census shows Alderson Withrow with a household containing a female aged 30–40, 3 males under 10, one male 10–15, and two young females: one aged 5–10 (Sidney born in 1831) and one aged 10–15 (Eliza born in 1826/7).11

Supporting Alderson’s pre-1850 death date is the fact that his children in 1850 are scattered amid other households.12 Curtis, 15, was living with his sister Eliza and her husband Zach. J. Wood in Fayette County.13 Robert, 18, resided in the Greenbrier County home of Ana Miller.14 Andrew Jackson, 21, was an apprentice in the Fayette County household of blacksmith Anderson Adkisson.15 No further record has been found of the fourth male (aged under 5) who was part of Alderson’s 1840 family.

An early twentieth-century county history provides contradictory information as to Sidney’s birth family: “T. D. Lusher…married Miss S. J. Wood, a sister of Zacharia Wood, the famous hunter and Lick Creek blacksmith. The latter…married a sister of Thomas D. Lusher.”16 However, both Zachariah’s brief autobiography and the Lick Creek Baptist Church roll identify his wife as a Withrow.
Moreover, “family knowledge” of Sidney’s surname has carried down to the present. Her great-granddaughter, Courtney Mae (Berkley) Wheeler (1897–2000)17 knew both Sidney Lusher and Eliza Wood. Although she did not remember the name of their father, she stated on numerous occasions that Sidney and Eliza were sisters and that their maiden name was Withrow. In addition Sidney was identified as a Withrow in her obituary and in the death records of at least three of her children.18

In conclusion, four evidentiary arguments support the identification of Sidney as a daughter of Alderson Withrow. One, a biography of Zachariah Woods, written while he and his wife Eliza were living, identifies Eliza’s father as Alderson Withrow. Two, Zachariah’s obituary reports his death at the home of his nephew A.J. Lusher, whose mother Sidney is called a Withrow in her obituary. Three, Sidney’s great-granddaughter, who knew both women, identified them as sisters. Four, Sidney’s known birth date fits with the other known children of Alderson Withrow in the 1840 census. Although no record states that Sidney was the daughter of Alderson, indirect evidence provides the necessary proof.

Proof summaries are a useful tool for simple or relatively uncomplicated situations. A list-style proof summary is appropriate as a cover sheet when submitting a packet of documents to, let us say, a lineage society or a client. On the other hand, a narrative-style proof summary is appropriate when we have several pieces of direct evidence to support an assertion, all of which points in the same direction, and we wish to make clear exactly what each document states—together with the scope of our research and other factors critical to the issue.

However, when evidence conflicts or when we have no document that provides direct evidentiary proof of a “fact” or a relationship, a carefully crafted and well-documented proof argument allows us to pull together disparate pieces of information, explain contradictions, and show the scope of the research—all being  elements essential to meeting the Genealogical Proof Standard.


1.     1860 U.S. Census, Greenbrier Co., Va., dist. 2, p. 21, dwell. 149, fam. 141; National Archives micropublication M653, roll 1348. In 1850, the couple lived temporarily in Iowa with a daughter Mary Jane, 3, b. in Va.; see 1850 U.S. Census, Davis Co., Iowa, Salt Creek Twp., p. 477, dwell. 117, fam. 119; NA M432, roll 182. 

2.    Norbin Reynolds married Eliza Ellen Lusher, daughter of Thomas and Sidney, on 25 December 1893; see Summers Co., W.Va., Marriage Book 3: 44.

3.    Fayette Co. was not established until 28 February 1831. Her tombstone in McElhenney Presbyterian Church Cemetery, Grassy Meadows, Greenbrier Co. (now W. Va.), gives her birth date as 18 January 1831.

4.    Thomas Daniel Lusher tombstone (born 26 June 1823, died 7 May 1907) McElhenney Presbyterian Church Cemetery.

5.    Information on all Withrows was used to compile family groups in an effort to identify possible candidates for Sidney’s parents.

6.    Churches and Church Members of Fayette and Summers (N.p.: n.p., ca. 1889), 36. A copy is found in the West Virginia Collection of the Oak Hill Public Library; it was  apparently accessioned in August 1985 from the estate of Newman and Mary A. Kious Walkup, according to a handwritten note on the front cover. Internal evidence provides clues to the publication date. There are numerous references to 1888 and earlier dates, but only five references to specific dates in 1889—the latest being the death of Mary M. Kincaid on 16 March 1889. Thus, the publication must have occurred after that date. A reference to John M. Smith and his wife Julia’s “one son living, Arthur J., born May 1882” (p.31) suggests the publication took place sometime near May of 1889, because the 1900 census notes a second son George, born that month, as well as other younger children,

7.    Lick Creek Baptist Church Register, 1889–1895, Mss 95-1, West Virginia State Archives, Charleston.

8.    Independent Herald (Hinton, W.Va.), 3 February 1910, p. 2.

9.    James S. and Evelyn E. Blake, Early Nicholas County (West) Virginia Marriage Bonds (and Records), 1818–1864 (Craigsville, W.Va.: the compilers, 1995). The first page of the record book carries the heading “Marriages copied by WPA workers in the 1930s and not found otherwise in records.” This record lists the marriage as Anderson Withrow and Phebe Skaggs; however, no Anderson Withrow has been found in Nicholas or adjacent counties during this time. Alderson’s wife is named as Phebe Skaggs in Zachariah Wood’s biography above. Extant marriage records of the three boys (see n. 12) all list their mother’s name as Phebe or Phoebe.

10.   1830 U.S. Census, Greenbrier County, Va., p. 208; NA micropublication M19, roll 190.

11.   1840 U.S. Census, Greenbrier County, Va., South Greenbrier, p. 223; NA micropublication M704, roll 556.

12.   Proof of the parentage of the three sons is found in their marriage records: Andrew Jackson Withrow, Fayette County, W.Va., Marriage Register 3: 178; Robert L. Withrow, Kanawha County, W.Va., Marriage Register 1, 1854–1884: 3; Curtis Withrow, Greenbrier County, Va., Marriage Register 1B: 6.

13.   1850 U.S. Census, Fayette Co., Va., Dist.14, p. 333, dwell. & fam. no. 37; NA M432, roll 943.

14.   Ibid., Greenbrier Co., Va., p. 297, dwell. & fam. no. 873; NA M432, roll 947.

15.   Ibid., Fayette Co., Va., Dist. 14, p. 333, dwell. & fam. no. 47.

16.   James H. Miller, History of Summers County from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time ( Hinton, W. Va.: n.p., 1908), 498.

17.   Mrs. Wheeler, my grandmother, was still in full possession of her faculties when she died shortly before her 102nd birthday.

18.   West Virginia Division of Culture and History, “Search Death Records,” database and digital images, West Virginia Division of Culture and History (http://www.wvculture.org/vrr/va_dcsearch.aspx: accessed 10 July 2009), Andrew Jackson Lusher, death certificate no.11697; Eliza Ellen (Lusher) Reynolds, death certificate no. 6868; William Aneas Lusher, death certificate no.11096.


Barbara Vines Little, CG

This article was originally published in OnBoard, BCG's educational newsletter and is protected by copyright. Individuals may download and print copies for their personal study. Educators are granted permission to provide copies to their students as long as BCG, OnBoard, and the appropriate author are credited as the source of the material. Republication elsewhere is not permitted.



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