Negative Evidence and Why It’s Important

Last week I wrote about how I still have not found Edith McKamey in any record after April 1910. Many times we search for our ancestors, but they’re just not there. You think you know where they should be at a particular time, but they’re not. Those are negative searches and don’t necessarily tell you anything about your ancestor’s life.1 As a reminder, keep track of those searches so you don’t do them again.

magnifying glass and book

Negative evidence is completely different. It’s when you don’t find your ancestor in a particular situation or record set and it does tell you something.2 Let me give you an example…

If you tracked an ancestor in the tax rolls and suddenly he no longer appears, one of three things happened.

  • Exemption from taxes might have occurred due to age (check local laws for time and place).
  • He could have moved.
  • Or, perhaps he died.

His absence from the list says something about his life. You’d think he’d be there, but his name not showing up speaks volumes. That’s negative evidence. And yes, you need to cite that as well. From there, you make a plan to look for him in another census, a death record, etc.

Elizabeth Shown Mills has a wonderful article entitled “Negative Evidence vs. Negative Findings”. You can read it here. She gives a wonderful explanation to further explain this concept.

Negative evidence can be very powerful to your research. It’s up to you to determine what it means and how you can use it to move forward.

Genealogy tip: The more you work with records, the more you will find negative searches and negative evidence. Get comfortable with both and it will improve your research skills.

Do you have ancestors who are tough to find? I can help. Begin by clicking below to start uncovering your elusive ancestors.

1“Appendix D – Glossary,” Genealogy Standards, Second Edition (Nashville, Tennessee: Turner Publishing Company, 2019), p. 82.

2Ibid. p. 81.

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