Now, once some bit of fact is in a more permanent mode, is it any truer? That is, stories rely upon memory (suspect for several reasons), ability to repeat (again, information theory has something to say about this), hearing and interpreting issues, and much more. When something is captured to written form, it can endure centuries whether it is right or wrong (to wit, genealogical bits that were shown to be not true, yet persist -- even on the web, we cannot retract easily).
Not to pick on one family, as this problem exists everywhere, but Anthony Potter (see Notes), the 3rd great-grandfather (maternal) of Nathaniel Hawthorne, is a good example. Some have his first wife, Elizabeth Whipple, as the mother of his kids. Whereas she may have died without issue. So, that would make the second wife, Elizabeth Stone, the mother.
When browsing, one can figure these things out by comparing dates, assuming that they are correct. Of course, a mother may have died at childbirth.
The whole point is that there is no absolute certainty (as in proof) about these types of facts. Yet, we can rate things by strength. Too, we can show both the information that supports and that which casts doubt. In fact, that would make the field not unlike any science.
That is, at any point, we can add to a strong state of knowledge or we can weaken a position. But, the fact would not stand alone and would need to have its data package (we'll look at this further).
However, all tales of these types contain some element of truth. Isn't life better with them? And, hoping that some unsupported claim might be true, while waiting for confirmation or not, is better than a practiced, cynical, critical eye that assumes nothing (impossible for the human) until all facts are on the table.
Of course, it boils down to the symbols (artifacts) in hand and their ability to support proof (another whole issue). Will this work always result in some dried collection of bones upon which we need to paint a proper hypothetical portrait (a human trait that is not bad, necessarily)?
05/05/2011 -- Did Thomas of Salem have a sister, Rachel?
01/09/2011 -- One would hope that each generation would leave behind some contribution so as to make the family history more solid, that is, reduce misinformation. Modern methods, and computation, seems to suggest such. Of course, disinformation (ought we say, dis-ingenuity) is always a possibility.
01/01/2011 -- We will have a post that points to sites that allow an estimation of strength through notes and such.