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 unyielding 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 have an ancestor you have tracked in the tax rolls and suddenly he is no longer listed, one of three things happened.

  • He could have gotten too old to be taxed (check local laws for time and place).
  • He could have moved.
  • He could have died.

The fact that he is no longer listed tells you something about his life. You expect him to be listed and he’s not and that says something. 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.

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.

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

2Ibid. p. 81.

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