Always Check the Original

In my class, I try to emphasize the importance of seeking original documents during our research. In this era of and, online transcriptions, indexes and databases are becoming accessible at a dizzying rate. While more access is always a good thing, sometimes what can be lost is the need to always view the original when we find evidence that appears promising.

Original documents can be hard to read. Transcribers do their best to interpret words, but we’re only human, and mistakes are plenty. My “Holt” ancestors are transcribed as “Halt”. Another thing is context. Someone wanting to create an alphabetized index to a set of records can inadvertently destroy our ability to get new evidence. For example, in alphabetized census records, we can’t see who the neighbors are anymore. Sometimes notes made in the margins of the original records aren’t included in the index. I’ve seen original Freedmen’s Bureau records that draw a semi-circle around names and indicate “wife and children”. I’ve seen original birth registers that note the child is “illegitimate”. We need all the clues we can get.

We must to be able to verify that the information we are receiving is accurate, and that can’t be done without seeing the original document.

To illustrate, I have a book of abstracts of Montgomery County, Maryland wills. While researching enslaved families, I found this entry for Rachel Magruder:

Will Abstract

A cursory look at this, with regard to slaves, could prompt one to conclude that Rachel did not own any slaves, since none are mentioned. But look at phrases from Rachel’s original will:

  • “…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…”

Rachel Magruder did in fact own slaves. However, the book of abstracts does not abstract any of the slave data for any of the people in the book. A decision was made by the authors, for whatever reasons, to not include that data. Reviewing the original revealed important information.

That’s a simple example meant to demonstrate the point.

Always. Always. Always check the original.

P.S.–Elizabeth Shown Mills has a new website online, and her Quick Lessons should be required reading. Check them out when you have time if you haven’t already.