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What is Negative Evidence in Genealogy?

Have you heard of negative evidence in genealogy? In this post, learn what this term means, as well as how you can use and document negative evidence in your family tree research.

What is Negative Evidence in Genealogy?

Family tree research can sometimes be difficult. We are searching for records and documents related to people who lived long ago, often without creating much of a paper trail of evidence to leave behind for the future.

Finding documents about our ancestors can be made even more difficult when there are several people with the same or similar name that lived in the same area.

This is where negative evidence might be able to help us. Best of all, you might already be using negative evidence in your research without even knowing what it is called.

What is negative evidence?

Negative evidence is using a lack of evidence to draw a conclusion that something did not happen or was not so. This is usually done by making an inference after doing a search for a record, document, or detail within those documents that you expected to find, but don’t.

The concept of negative evidence sounds technical and complicated, but it really isn’t. Many genealogical evidence terms have their origins in legal language, which is why they are so formal-sounding.

However, negative evidence is really only using the type of logic that you use in your daily life in order to make conclusions about your family tree.

It’s sometimes easiest to understand the concept of negative evidence in terms of something not related to genealogy. If you go outside to check the mail, expecting to find something, and the mailbox is empty, you can use this negative evidence to come to a few conclusions:

  • The mail hasn’t come yet
  • The mail came, but you didn’t get anything
  • The mail came, but your spouse already retrieved it
  • The mail came, but someone stole it

Depending on the conclusion that you come to, you will do a number of other things to come up with direct evidence that it is correct. If you think your husband already got the mail, you might call him and his verbal confirmation would be a different type of evidence that backs up your conclusion.

Is negative evidence the same as a negative search?

Negative evidence is not the same as a negative search, or insufficient evidence. A negative search is when you search specific database for a birth record, for example, and find nothing.

Insufficient evidence is when there isn’t enough evidence to prove a fact. For example, finding two men with the same surname living next-door to each other on the census does not prove they are related – the census record is insufficient evidence of their relationship.

What is an example of negative evidence in genealogy?

Below are a few examples of negative evidence. As a research question, we’ll say that we are interested in learning the identity of Samuel Butler’s (b. 1821) parents.

Lack of evidence that someone lived where you expected to

Many online family trees claim that his parents were Samuel L Butler and Betsey Hart. My Samuel Butler was born in Ohio in 1821, and so I would expect to find a couple with this name living somewhere in Ohio.

However, I can’t find any evidence that Samuel and Betsey ever lived in Ohio. Since I have lots of sources for my Samuel being born in Ohio, one conclusion that I can draw by not finding Samuel Sr and Betsey in Ohio is that these might not be his parents.

Your ancestor is not mentioned in a will when they should be

Since I know that Samuel Butler was born in Ohio, and I have suspicions about the county, I did a search for all of the Butler families in that area. I found a Samuel Butler who I thought might be the father of Samuel, and there was a child about my Samuel’s age in the 1830 census listed as living in his household.

However, I was able to locate the will and probate records for the Samuel I found, and there was no mention of a son named Samuel. Sure, there are some explanations as to why a son might not be mentioned in a will, but this is certainly a piece of negative evidence that could lead me to the conclusion that this particular Butler family is not mine.

The record does not belong to your ancestor

Sometimes negative evidence can help us draw a pretty simple conclusion. The most common example is negative evidence helping us understand that a record or family does not belong to our ancestor.

One way that I have been trying to figure out who Samuel’s parents really are is by attempting to track his movements during his life. I figure that if I can find out where he spent his time, I might find some clues about his origins.

There is a military record for a Samuel Butler enlisting in Brooklyn, New York. I initially ignored this record because it was so far away geographically from where I know Samuel lived.

However, I eventually examined the record and got a bit excited. This soldier Samuel enlisted around the time of the Civil War and was born in Ohio.

However, the age of this Samuel was more than ten years younger than my Samuel. My conclusion is that my ancestor likely did not serve in this particular NY regiment during the war.

How can you use negative evidence in your research?

Negative evidence can be a very powerful strategy in your family tree research. Instead of only focusing on those records that you find, look at conclusions that you can come to based on what you don’t find.

These conclusions can provide clues and point you in directions that you might never have gone in had it not been for a concerted negative evidence strategy.

You can eliminate options by finding negative evidence

If you know your ancestor’s name, place of birth, and approximate year of birth, but there are lots of people with the same name born in the same area, you can use negative evidence to eliminate some of these other families as potential parents for your ancestor.

For example, I have an ancestor named Thomas Thompson from Providence Rhode Island. There are two men named Thomas Thompson born around the same time.

However, one of them is definitely not my ancestor. I was able to use negative evidence to figure this out.

Essentially, I researched the Thomas Thompson that I located and figured out who his parents were, who his wife and children were, and where he lived. It turns out that he was very wealthy and prominent, which in my case is negative evidence that he is related to my ancestors.

In addition, this Thomas’ parents never lived where my Thomas was born, and none of the children mentioned in this Thomas’ matched the name of Thomas’ son (my ancestor).

Your ancestor may have been living somewhere else

For example, if you can’t find your ancestor on the 1850 US Federal Census, you might just decide that they were somehow just overlooked by the census workers, or that the record doesn’t exist. You might be especially confused if they are living in the same enumeration district in 1840 and 1860, but there is just nothing for 1850 in that region.

It’s important to note that there is a twenty-year gap between 1840 and 1860. That’s almost the length of a generation, and a lot can happen in that amount of time.

What if your ancestors’ family decided for some reason to go live somewhere else for a while? Perhaps they heard that life was great out west and they gave it a try, but came back when things weren’t what they were expected.

If your ancestor was an immigrant or a child of immigrants, what if they went to the country where their ancestors were from for a period of time, but eventually came back because of unknown circumstances?

Your next step would be to look for direct evidence in the form of a variety of genealogy records that back up your conclusion. If you can’t find any, you can test out other theories.

Endless more ways to use negative evidence

If you love logic puzzles or just using logic to come to conclusions, then you can potentially have a lot of fun coming up with endless ways to use negative evidence in your research. You are only limited by your imagination and the amount of time that you want to dedicate to solving a particular question about your ancestor.

Document your negative evidence

Be sure to take the time to document your negative evidence and the conclusions that you have investigated. This will help you save time in the future by not repeating your efforts.

If you take the time to write up a little explanation about why a record doesn’t belong to your ancestor, or why a family is not the right family, and upload it to your Ancestry tree, this can help save others from researching the wrong people in the future, too.


I hope that this post has helped you understand the definition of negative evidence when it comes to family tree research, how it might have been an overlooked strategy in your research, and how you can use this type of information to learn more about your ancestors.

If you have any questions about something that you read in this post, or if you have been inspired to work on a mystery using negative evidence, I would love to hear from you in the discussion below.

Thanks for reading today!

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