It’s all about the paperwork

13 years ago

It’s all about the paperwork

Family history research is all about paperwork.

Family Searcher

ED-FamilySearcher-dcX-sharpt-9By Nina Brawn

It is based on records from the past, and then we create more paperwork bringing the puzzle together. It’s easy to forget how important each piece is. However, if we analyze documents, there are often “hidden” prizes, especially in older records.

When a record fails to reveal all we hoped, remember that most records were not created for family history. However, we can learn to read between the lines. Start by asking why the record was created. The census was created to determine tax rates, and seats in the House of Representatives.

The congressmen responsible for the census probably never expected it would be used the way we do. Knowing why and how it was created eases our frustration, and helps us make better use of the information. We know that census takers were assigned specific areas, so we can guess that people on one page were most likely from the same neighborhood.

Without that foreknowledge I would have looked at the census as I do a page of birth records; looking for a particular Brawn, for instance. Knowing that families often moved together, and that census takers worked a neighborhood, now the other people on the page take on new significance. Another “Brawn” family is more likely to be related, a possible lead I would otherwise have missed.

There are other ways to “read” more from our documents. One of the best tricks is to completely transcribe it. Yes, really. We are taught to scan for the gist of most of the things we read. If you try this technique, you will be surprised at what you discover. Words take on new significance. We often spot information that was originally overlooked. This is especially helpful with very old records, deeds, and records in foreign languages. I don’t transcribe often, but I have found some real gems in this way.

There are other helpful questions to use when studying a record. How close to the time of the event was it created? Is this an original record, a copy, a transcription or an abstract? Who are the witnesses, informants or other people mentioned? Are relationships stated or implied? Are locations, occupations, education, or health issues mentioned? Do you know the meaning of the words used at the time the document was written? In an earlier column I mentioned “tuberculosis of the knee” a phrase used in the 1890s. We now call that “polio”.

Trouble with handwriting? Look at other words or documents written by the same person. When my sister, Cindy, and I first started trying to read old handwritten Italian, we kept struggling over one letter in a word in every birth certificate by a certain clerk. By looking at several of them, we were able to find that letter used in a word we recognized. (It turned out to be a very fancy lower case “d”.)

I hope some of these hints will help you get more from your collection.

Editor’s note: This regular column is sponsored by the Aroostook County Genealogical Society. The group meets the fourth Monday of the month except in July and December at the Cary Medical Center’s Chan Education Center, 163 Van Buren Road, Caribou, at 6:30 p.m. Guests and prospective members are always welcome. FMI contact Edwin “J” Bullard at 492-5501. Columnist Nina Brawn of Dover-Foxcroft has been doing genealogy for over 30 years, is a freelance genealogy researcher, speaker and teacher. Reader e-mails are welcome at