The “Original Record”–Points to Ponder, by Paula Stuart-Warren, CG

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? Wasn’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.

The Typewriter
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 “typewriter” 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 has an index to marriage records back to 1870, obviously the records weren’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
Here’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.

Religious Affiliations
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. It’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.

Land Stories
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 wasn’t “homesteaded.”

The “Original” Will
Eureka! You just found an original 1852 will in Volume B of an ancestor’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 clerk’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 and the Minnesota Historical Society’s (MHS– 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 don’t always tell if it is a “delayed” 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 someone’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.

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

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 at  or via her blog, 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).
Appearances by Paula Stuart-Warren, CG

  • February 23, 2008, South St. Paul, Minnesota
    Minnesota Genealogical Society Class
    Class: Researching Your American Indian Ancestors

6 thoughts on “The “Original Record”–Points to Ponder, by Paula Stuart-Warren, CG

  1. U.S. Homstead Act of 1862. It was about that time that my g-grandfather came to the U.S. from Canada. Was there a big migration to Illinois because of the Act? Would I be able to find records of those applying for the land?

  2. When possible, always check original records, not relying on transcriptions. One of my ancestors name was transcribed as PARKER when early marriage records of Granville NC were published. I obtained a copy of the original marriage license in hopes there would be a parental consent for the 1798 marriage, providing a clue to her heritage. The certifiate that arrived stated her maiden name was PARHAM – in very legible writing.

    Despite my efforts to correct this information floating around the internet, the surname PARKER remains the surname of choice to many of their descendants.

  3. It’s amazing what you can find, sometimes without even trying. We had an amazing woman in our family who lived into her 90s, and outlived all of her children but 1.

    Her obituary stated that she had been married three times, and outlived three husbands. But I could not find a death for this 2nd man anywhere. By accident, I stumbled across the Illinois Regional Archives Database (IRAD) court records for Lake County. I’d used their birth and death records before, but on an off chance, I entered the surname Webster. Sure enough, there was our Nancy and her husband Calno in a Webster vs Webster case. Since divorce was so shameful in 1870, it was never mentioned outside the family.

    When I eventually found cousins from this line, they told me that the story was that Calno Webster tied his horse to a tree near the river and simply disappeared. Nancy waited the requisite two years, then filed for divorce.

    So always question everything! Never take anything you are told for granted. I discovered a whole new angle to write about in my family history because of this divorce.

  4. Because the Homestead Act was not enacted til 1862 does not mean that the term Homesteaded was not used previous to that.
    I would guess the word was used in relation to the Act because it was already in use by the populace

  5. For Kathy — You can check for your ancestor at the Bureau of Land Management’s website —
    You can even get a copy of the record. I know a couple of my ancestors who used the Homestead Act are in their database.

  6. My mother’s death date got changed from 23 November to 13 November by what must have been a typo. We spotted it within weeks of her death, but what if it was a mistake in the year which went unnoticed?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *