Direct or Indirect Evidence

I've recently been contemplating a genealogical problem I solved many years ago. My question revolves around whether I did so through the use of direct or indirect evidence.

An immigrant to the U.S. named Johann left no direct evidence for the identity of his parents, nor for the exact location of his birth in Germany. This block was only overcome after finding a copy of the naturalization record for Johann's brother, Frederick. In that document, Frederick listed the exact name of the town of his birth. This information was then used to reference the church records for that town, where the birth records of both Frederick and Johann were found.

Clearly, Johann's birth record is direct evidence, providing both his date of birth and the names of his parents. However, to find that record, the information used came from about his brother, not Johann. Is this considered direct or indirect evidence? To me, this is indirect evidence, but I may be overthinking it, and am starting to question myself. I am not sure, even after reading EE's Quick Lesson 13, discussing Ms. Leary's great research regarding the children of Sally Hemming and Thomas Jefferson. Any help or direction regarding my question will be greatly appreciated.

Submitted byEEon Sun, 05/30/2021 - 14:47

MMS, you grasp the principles well.

  • Your research question was this: Where was Johann born and who were his parents?
  • Frederick's naturalization record did not answer that research question. Therefore the evidence you gleaned from it was not direct evidence for your research question.
  • Frederick's naturalization record did tell you where Frederick was born. Since you had already proved that Frederick and Johann were brothers, Frederick's naturalization record provided you indirect evidence pointing to a possible place for Johann's birth.
  • There at that place in Germany, you found church records for both Frederick and Johann, citing parents. That gave you direct evidence for the parental identity.

You solved your research problem—i.e., you answered your research question—through a correlation and assembly of both direct and indirect evidence.

MMS, your puzzlement is common. The key to understanding evidence is to remember that no one record proves anything. One assertion is just one assertion. It's proved or disproved by additional research and additional evidence. In the end, we "prove" a point by assembling multiple pieces of evidence.

Each piece in that assembly can be—and usually is—a different type of evidence. Some may explicitly answer our research question (direct evidence) and they may still be wrong. Some may just "hint at" an answer and be right. We prove what's right or wrong by assembling as many pieces of evidence as we can through thorough research and then weighing all that evidence to reach a logical conclusion.