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Using the Genealogical Proof Standard for African American Research

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Syllabus for class taught by James Ison, Manager at FamilySearch, presented at the NGS 2010 Conference and the FGS 2010 Conference.

Life is good when records with direct evidence exist, like a marriage license that gives the birth dates and places of both bride and groom and lists the full names of each set of parents. Typically that doesn’t last long, though, especially in African American research. Soon one finds only bits and pieces of indirect or conflicting evidence, and progress comes to a screeching halt.

This presentation explains the benefits of the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS)[1] using a case study of John Parker, an African American Underground Railroad hero responsible for conducting nearly 1,000 people to freedom. Key strategies are presented to explore the origin of John Parker’s name by piecing together strands and threads of indirect evidence from disparate sources using the Genealogical Proof Standard.

Genealogical Proof Standard[2][edit | edit source]

  1. Conduct a reasonably exhaustive search for all pertinent information.
  2. Include complete and accurate citation of sources for each item of information used.
  3. Analyze and correlate collected information for quality.
  4. Resolve conflicting evidence.
  5. Write a soundly reasoned, coherent conclusion.

Benefits of the Genealogical Proof Standard[edit | edit source]

  1. Helps you determine what you know
  2. Helps you decide what you need to learn
  3. Helps you explain your work to others
  4. Gives you confidence regarding the direction to take
  5. Provides an approach for solving difficult research problems using indirect evidence
  6. Helps you feel safe and secure about your conclusion

His Promised Land[3][edit | edit source]

  • Dictated by John Parker to newspaper man Frank Gregg in 1885
  • “Lost” in Duke University Library manuscript collection until 1993
  • Edited by Stuart Sprague and published in 1996
  • Covers enslaved years (1827 to 1845)and Underground Railroad heroics (1845 to 1865)

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center[4][edit | edit source]

  • Located in Cincinnati, Ohio, on the Ohio River between the Cincinnati Bengals football stadium and the Cincinnati Reds baseball park
  • Open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • FamilySearch Center in the John Parker Library on the 4th floor
  • John Parker Historical Society[5]

John Parker Overview[edit | edit source]

  • About 1827—Born enslaved at Norfolk, VA
  • 1835—Sold and taken to Mobile, AL; purchased by a physician; learned to read and write
  • About 1843—Learned the iron trade; arranged his own sale with provisions for freedom
  • 1845—Earned his freedom; moved to Cincinnati, OH
  • 1845—First episode as Underground Railroad conductor
  • 1848—Married; moved to Ripley, OH
  • 1851—Secretary of Brown County Colored Convention
  • 1865—Over the course of 20 years, aided nearly 1,000 enslaved people to freedom
  • 1867—Delegate to Ohio Colored Convention
  • 1870—27th wealthiest person in Ripley, OH
  • 1880s—Awarded two patents from U.S. Patent Office
  • 1883—Biography included in History of Brown County, Ohio
  • 1890—Last of his six surviving children becomes a teacher
  • 1900—Died; body was cremated in accordance with his will

Case Study—Determine the origin of the name John Percival Parker[edit | edit source]

Naming Strategies[edit | edit source]

  • Current or recent slave holder
  • Earlier slave holder
  • Prominent person
  • Occupation
  • Place name

Slave holder Mobile, 1843–1845
Slave holder Mobile, 1835–1843
Slave holder Norfolk, 1827–1835
“Mrs. Ryder was a good woman. She encouraged me all she could. . . . I bade her farewell with regrets because of her almost motherly kindness.”
“My friend the doctor was pleased with the deal as he knew I would have a good home. So we parted as good friends, which he always was to me.”
“. . . when I was eight years old living in Norfolk, Virginia. As a slave, all I knew was my father was one of the aristocrats of Virginia.”

Mobile, Alabama research[edit | edit source]

  • Census
  • Directories
  • Manumissions
  • Deeds

Norfolk, Virginia research[edit | edit source]

  • Census
  • Family Histories
  • Probate
  • Tax
  • Deeds

Prominent People[edit | edit source]

  • John Parker Hale
a) Biographies
b) Mobile newspaper search
c) Cincinnati newspaper search
  • Hale Giddings and Cassius Clay
  • Percival

Strategies and Tips for Difficult Problems[edit | edit source]

1. Be unreasonable when conducting a “reasonably exhaustive search.”

a. Become an expert on applicable records from your area of interest.
b. Make a search plan for all applicable records.
c. Start with compiled records, but always use the most original records possible.
d. Evaluate the sources cited by others for possible research avenues.
e. Make a list of family members, friends, and associates.
f.  Search for descendants, as they may have a unique piece of evidence.

2. Combine thorough citation with your research log.

a. Cite your sources using a consistent, structured format.
b. Evaluate whether you have balance in the types of sources.
c. Evaluate the quality of your sources. Challenge your sources. Evaluate where else you might find supporting or conflicting information. If possible, never rely on only one source for an important relationship or key fact.

3. Correlate and analyze as you do your research.

a. Put your conclusions in lists to better understand them.
b. Use tables to better analyze and correlate data.
c. Use maps, especially land ownership maps, to visualize where people lived.
d. Plat the deeds to better understand the neighborhood.
e. Learn historical background of major events.
f. Conduct “cluster research” involving neighbors and contacts.
g. Look for spelling variations and name changes.

4. Resolve conflicts.

a. View research conclusions from the opposite perspective.
b. Search for alternatives.

5. Understand that writing is a process.

a. New ideas and questions occur as you write
b. Writing requires you to think deeply
c. Expect to write several or many iterations
d. Share your written conclusions with others for “vetting”

6. Frequently read case studies:

  • Curtis G. Brasfield, “Tracing Slave Ancetors: Batchelor, Bradley, Branch, and Wright of Desha County, Arkansas,” NGS Quarterly 92 (March 2004), 6–30.
  • Melvin J. Collier, Mississippi to Africa: A Journey of Discovery (Westminster, MD: Heritage Books, 2008).
  • Mary Fears, Slave Ancestral Research: It's Something Else (Bowie, Maryland : Heritage Books, 1995).
  • Katherine E. Flynn, “Jane Johnson, Found! But Is She ‘Hannah Crafts’? The Search for the Author of The Bondwoman’s Narrative,” NGS Quarterly 90 (September 2002), 165–190.
  • Elizabeth Shown Mills, “Documenting a Slave’s Birth, Parentage, and Origins (Marie Theresa Coincoin, 1742–1816): A Test of ‘Oral History,’ ” NGS Quarterly 96 (December 2008), 245–266.
  • Ruth Randall, “An Interracial Suit for Inheritance: Clues to Probable Paternity for a Georgia Freedman, Henry Clay Heard Sherman,” NGS Quarterly 89 (June 2001), 85–97.
  • Douglas S. Shipley, “Teaming Oral History with Documentary Research: The Enslaved Austins of Missouri’s ‘Little Dixie,’ ” NGS Quarterly 90 (June 2002), 111–135. 

  1. Christine Rose, Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case (San Jose, Publications, 2005).
  2. BCG Web site,
  3. Stuart Sprague (editor), His Promised Land (New York City, W. W. Norton and Company, 1996).
  4. Freedom Center Web site,
  5. John Parker History Society Web site,