I cannot overemphasize the importance of seeking original records during our research. In this era of Ancestry.com, transcriptions, indexes and databases are becoming accessible at a dizzying rate.
While databases and indexes are useful, we must remember that they can never be a replacement for the original record.
Original records can be hard to read. We’ve all seen census records written in awful handwriting. Transcribers do their best to interpret words, but mistakes are plenty. My “Holt” ancestors are often transcribed as “Halt.”
Another concern is context. An alphabetized index to a set of records can inadvertently destroy our ability to gather clues.
For example, in alphabetized tax or voter records, we can’t see who the neighbors are anymore. Knowing who the neighbors of our ancestors are is critical to cluster research.
Sometimes notes made in the margins of the original records aren’t included in an index or database. I’ve seen original Freedmen’s Bureau records that draw a semi-circle around names and note that they are “wife and children.” I’ve seen original birth registers that note the child is “illegitimate.” Genealogists need all the clues we can get.
We must to be able to analyze and examine the original record.
A Maryland Will
While researching enslaved families, a book of Montgomery County will abstracts for Rachel Magruder included no reference to enslaved laborers.
But Rachel’s original will, obtained from the State Archives, makes it clear that she indeed owned slaves:
- “…my negro man Hercules to be the property of my sister…”
- “…my servant girl Helen to be the property of my mother-in-law…”
- “…negroes Aria and Anna to go to Mira Magruder…”
The book of abstracts did not abstract any of the information about enslaved people. The authors decided not to include that data. Reviewing the original source revealed important information.
I’ll say it again: always check the original.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.