Oral history, family stories, a clerk in a courthouse, a website, a volunteer in a library–for the most part people mean well when they pass on information to you or others. Do you need to verify the family story from Aunt Maggie who is sharp as a tack? Wasnâ€™t it neat to find the nicely typed index or abstract of records going all the way back to 1845? It is so much easier to read. However, here are some points to ponder if we want to figure out the real story.
Is an 1855 record or index typewritten? If so, it is likely not an original record or index because common usage of the typewriter did not begin until the 1870s. Early versions of a â€œtypewriterâ€ cropped up over time, but were not commercially available until the Remington I (also known as the Sholes & Glidden Type Writer) was first sold in 1874.
Courthouse Records Were Burned
What if the story is that an original record was destroyed in a courthouse fire in 1882 or destroyed in 1862 during the Civil War? Yes, courthouses and other buildings were destroyed during the Civil War, fires happen, buildings are swept away by floods, but there may be times when such a story is convenient rather than true. If Ancestry.com has an index to marriage records back to 1870, obviously the records werenâ€™t destroyed in 1882. Read county and town histories and local newspapers for details on disasters. Check online catalogs of state archives to see if a set of records was transferred there.
All Those Railroad Workers
Hereâ€™s another one. Great-great-grandpa worked for the XYZ railroad right after the family arrived in Smith County in 1810. What if the railroad did not reach the county until 1860? Read a county history, a history of the XYZ railroad, check for an online timeline, or check newspapers from the era to verify the story.
Grandma always said that until Andrew was christened at the Lutheran Church in 1883, the family attended the Catholic Church because there was no Lutheran Church until just before Andrew was born. Itâ€™s time to check for a county history, church history, or newspaper to verify the founding dates for both churches. A county history says the first Lutheran church was built in the town in 1865. Hmmm . . . has there been a change of religion that the family has conveniently forgotten about? Perhaps a mixed marriage occurred.
Grandpa said his grandfather homesteaded in Illinois in 1855. The U.S. Homestead Act was 1862. It could well be that he settled in Illinois in 1855 and had what the family called a homestead, but it wasnâ€™t â€œhomesteaded.â€
The â€œOriginalâ€ Will
Eureka! You just found an original 1852 will in Volume B of an ancestorâ€™s county history. Such excitement! It may not be the original. Someone brought the will to the county courthouse to get it filed. No copiers, no scanners, but the clerkâ€™s pen was handy and he copied it into his record book. This is one reason to look at the actual volumes that were kept in the courthouse or that might be in an archive today. Was it a preprinted volume with a title page that shows the publisher? Could it be a stack of truly original wills that were later bound together? Was a microfilmed will book truly a book or possibly filmed from loose pages?
That Birth Record
At Ancestry.com and the Minnesota Historical Societyâ€™s (MHS–http://www.mnhs.org) website, I am able to search the indexes of recorded births from 1900 to 2002. I know that viewing the microfilms of the actual records at the MHS or the Family History Library is a must. Indexes donâ€™t always tell if it is a â€œdelayedâ€ birth record filing. Was it filed in the years around 1940? Was someone applying for the new Social Security system or for a security clearance in connection with WWII and needed a birth record? Passports, jobs, and military service are only some of the reasons to create a delayed birth record. It might be an altered birth record that changes someoneâ€™s name, corrects a misspelling, or changes ethnic origins. Think about the reason for the change and learn if there are extant proofs to back up the change. Not all vital records offices kept the proofs, but some did and you might even find that proof on a microfilm of the records.
The Moral of the Story
Each record or search we use or do must be judged for accuracy: dates of creation or alteration, who provided the data, the format of the record, the medium used (i.e., typed, handwritten), whether or not there was a record loss for that locality, and the reason the record was created. Using the tips above you should be able to determine more about the record and add authenticity to your family history.
About the Author
Paula Stuart-Warren, CG, a Minnesota resident is a professional genealogist, consultant, writer, and lecturer who is frequently on the road. She coordinates the intermediate course, American Records & Research, at the annual Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. She writes for several periodicals including Ancestry Magazine. Comments and additions to her columns will reach her atÂ PaulaStuartWarren@gmail.com Â or via her blog www.PaulaStuartWarren.blogspot.com, but she regrets that she is unable to answer individual genealogical research inquiries due to the volume of requests. From time to time, comments from readers may be quoted in her writings. Your name will not be used, but your place of residence might be listed (i.e. Salina, Kansas).
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Appearances by Paula Stuart-Warren, CG
- February 23, 2008, South St. Paul, Minnesota
Minnesota Genealogical Society Class
Class: Researching Your American Indian Ancestors