The Importance Of Using Original Records

by Michael Pollock | Jun 16, 2011

Most people have been taught in school to find information primarily in a published source, be it a newspaper, magazine, encyclopedia, dictionary or most recently, a wiki page. But these are all secondary sources, and not only do they potentially contain a wide variety of errors, they may not even contain the information one may is seeking. That is not to say previously published material should not be consulted, for it should if only to identify areas for further research, just that one should always make the use of original records, also known as primary sources, a part of one's research protocol both to make certain nothing is overlooked and to minimize the chances one will be "victimized" by another's mistakes.

Though they even appear in original records, errors in a published abstract/transcript will be of three varieties: 1) spelling (for purposes of this article, nothing further will be said, but it will be addressed in a subsequent article on interpreting handwriting); 2) omission (something left out); or 3)commission (something added).

Errors will be more often than not those of omission. Probably the reason such errors are most often made is being unable to read a specific word or phrase due either to the style of the writing or the condition of the record--a tear in the document with a portion missing or an ink splotch/bleeding or other kinds of soiling of the document that obscure words.

Recognizing that handling of such documents aggravates the problem, for many years, libraries and archives have tried both to prevent further deterioration of documents and to make them more widely available at the same time by microfilming them, though the trend is now to digitize them. Digitizing has many advantages over microfilming, the most significant being the ability to record in "shades of gray"--without special filters, a microfilm camera is unable to see anything other than black, white and gray, and when presented with other colors, will "interpret" them as either black, white or gray. Though most people may not realize it, this is the reason why a photocopy will not always pick up a yellow highlighter or an editor's red ink pen. It is also the reason that many government and business forms stipulate the use of black ink or a #2 pencil. This was first emphasized to me when, while still living in northern Virginia and almost daily visits the National Archives, were possible, I found an census index that stipulated a name appeared on a specific page but looking at the microfilm of that page, it appeared to be blank. Requesting to see the actual census book at the National Archives, I found the page quite easy to read, but the writing was in, as I recall, a light brown ink--the microfilm camera either was not set up properly, or didn't have the proper filter to "see" that color.

With digital copies it is possible to adjust, using graphics editing software that may be part of the configuration of the digital scanner, brightness, contrast, resolution and other settings to make the image more readable, adjustments that are either limited or simply not possible with a microfilm reader or photocopy. That said, there is one trick you may want to try when an image on microfilm is either too faint or blurred--try using a sheet of pastel paper (substitute plastic/mylar sheets when working with rear projection viewers or a computer screen). I find that amber, or the color in which butterscotch candy is typically wrapped, does the best job.

If one is able to read a record, the most common error of omission will be the result of not knowing the meaning of a word, phrase, or abbreviation and omitting it from an abstract for that reason. When Genealogical Publishing Company, after I offered it a collection of marriages for Botetourt County, Virginia, and the extant records of the counties created from it before 1853, it advised me that it was more interested in (re)publishing a collection of marriages for Henrico County, Virginia. Then deciding to do my own "version" of the same, in the interest of accuracy, I compared the marriages found on microfilm with both an earlier work by Joyce Haw Lindsay and a copy in the DAR Library in Washington, D.C. of a transcript made by the Works Progress Administration, and discovered two key omissions: 1) there were roughly 12 marriages for the years 1850 to 1853 in the W.P.A. transcript that were not on the microfilm at the state library in Richmond (as the W.P.A. transcript was done before the microfilm, I presume the records missing from the microfilm had been lost or destroyed before the filming was done); and 2) neither the W.P.A. transcript nor Miss Lindsay had included an abbreviation that appears in some of the records--F.N. This omission was significant as it stands for "Free Negro"! Because of the frequency with which some information was never recorded due to: a) the expense of paper; b) the fact that something was common knowledge in the community; and/or c)the attitude that blacks are not "human" and thus need not be shown all the considerations that are routinely given to whites, doing research on blacks can be difficult enough without omitting specific references to blacks when they are found in records.

It Isn't A Crime To Disagree With Someone

While I do not classify it as an error on her part, I feel obliged to acknowledge that Miss Lindsay and I disagree on the actual spelling of the surname of one groom. She gave it as Lee. I ultimately decided it was actually See. In compiling my book on Henrico County marriages, whenever I was uncertain of a name, be it given or last name, I consulted any other records available to me--census, wills, deeds, taxes, etc., to establish what the name actually was. With the groom on whom Miss Lindsay and I disagreed, I was unable to find a man of his given name with either surname in the other records of Henrico County I consulted. There was also no one of either surname having that given name in the records of the city of Richmond, Hanover, Goochland or Chesterfield Counties (all jurisdictions adjoining Henrico), but the surname See, more typically spelled Seay, is found in Goochland records of the time, while the nearest county to Henrico where I found a Lee in the closest census to the date of the marriage was Amherst, and thus I concluded the surname was more probably See. While there is something to be said about abstracts and transcripts being done by persons familiar with the families and history of a locality, this instance has made me mindful of the fact that one may be sometimes too quick to misinterpret a name precisely because it is "familiar". Of course, I have already noted that I did not find any Lees in other Henrico records of the time, but that surname is one of the quintessential surnames of Virginia along with Washington, Monroe, Madison and Byrd.

In published abstracts and transcripts I often see a statement by the compiler that information has been omitted and the reasons for the same, among them being that the information is readily available in another source that one is more likely to check, for example, omitting references in an order book to the probate of a will or administration of an intestate estate as they will also be found in a will book, or recording of a deed as it will also be found in a deed book. However, it is not always clear to me if the compiler actually made the effort to confirm the reference was indeed found in the will or deed book. Though I am unable to offer specific examples (and those examples would benefit only the people who descend from the individual), I have seen multiple instances, primarily in Virginia records as I specialize in the same, of where: 1) a will failed to identify the wife by name, referring to her only as "beloved" or another term of endearment, but she was actually mentioned by name in the order acknowledging the probate of the will; 2) an administration of an estate was not also recorded in the will book, presumably because there was either too few assets, no creditors, &/or no significant disagreement among the surviving claimants to warrant an entry in the will book to confirm the lack of disagreement; and 3) a wife is not mentioned by name or not at all in a deed but is mentioned in the order book when the deed was presented for recording (this is something more likely to occur in Virginia than other states because Virginia has always required the spouse's consent for any sale of real property).

How Did You Come Up With That?

Some errors are not so "innocent". I am a descendant of an Adams family which settled, by tradition, in Frederick County, Virginia, about 1754 and the branch to which I belong moved to what is now Mineral County about 1774. I descend from Catherine, the youngest member of the latter branch, who was born, according to a sampler made by this woman which I have actually seen, on 14 February 1784, when family tradition stipulated her father was age 74! I was immediately skeptical of that because while I knew it to be a biological possibility, as evidenced by the late U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, how many men actually lived not just to that age, and older (as the intestate administration on his estate put the year Catherine's father John died as 1794), but were fathering children at the time, given the hardness of life in general and more specifically the mountains of West Virginia, not to overlook the state of medicine?

Catherine had an older brother named Jacob who married Rachel Adams, a member of the Frederick County branch of the family, and both The Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy, edited by William Wade Hinshaw, and Hopewell Friends History, compiled by John Walter Wayland, report that Hopewell Monthly Meeting in Frederick County disowned Rachel for "marriage contrary to discipline". As the Quakers did disown members for marriage between first cousins and it was known from the records of Hopewell first that Rachel was the daughter of a William Adams, second, that her father was the son of a John, and third, that her father also had a brother named John, family members had always presumed Jacob and Rachel to be first cousins, but efforts to substantiate that consistently failed. One distant relative of mine, the late Charles Doll III, tried for more than 25 years before I began my research to prove Jacob and Rachel were first cousins. I spent 5 years trying, looking at virtually every I could find in or for Frederick County except one thing--the actual records for Hopewell Meeting. Though I subsequently learned they were available on microfilm in a number of locations, I determined the original records are in the archives of Swarthmore College near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and contacted that archives to request a copy of the actual disownment.

It turned out that not only were Jacob and Rachel NOT first cousins, she also was NOT disowned for her marriage. She was disowned specifically for cohabitation and the fact of the cohabitation is confirmed by the age at death of their oldest child as given on his tombstone in the Fort Ashby (WV) Cemetery, indicating he was born just 3 months after his parents' marriage! The disownment went on to say that Jacob was the half-brother of Rachel's father. The relationship was so close that they should not have been able to get a marriage bond, but they did.

With it thus established that Catherine Adams' father, purported born in 1710, had a son William born in 1744 (this from the inscription on his tombstone in Hopewell Cemetery), it became plausible that John was born as early as 1723. As there was a tradition in the branch of the family to which Rachel Adams belonged that the family, as already noted, not only first settled in Frederick County about 1754, but came to Virginia from West Jersey, there was renewed reason for me to look at Adamses in New Jersey, where I found in the Genealogical Dictionary of New Jersey an article on the Adams family which mentioned a James Adams of Chester Township, Burlington County, New Jersey, who died in 1722 leaving a will that named a son John and indicating said John was the youngest son. His wife Esther, nee Allen, left a will probated the following year and also mentioning John. Said John then appeared before a local magistrate in 1725 asking to have his uncle Thomas as his guardian.

The significance of that request is three-fold. First,English common law regards an orphan of 14 or older mature enough to make an informed decision on a matter such as who his/her guardian would be and a Court would have no grounds to refuse that choice short of the selected guardian being considered in the community to be unfit for moral (e.g., abusive of his/her own children), financial (a drunkard, gambler or otherwise showing a likelihood he/she would not be a good manager of money, as the primary duty of a guardian was the preservation and management of the assets, during his/her minority, of any assets inherited from the parents) &/or physical grounds (primarily poor health). Thus, John's request to have his uncle Thomas as his guardian establishes he did not turn 14 until after the deaths of both parents, so was born between 1710 and 1711. Second, that birth date is consistent with the report of a marriage in the minutes of Burlington Monthly Meeting of the Quaker Church, to which meeting James and Esther (Allen) Adams had belonged, by a John Adams to a Rachel Burr in 1732, and John Adams was admitted to Hopewell as a member, rather than convert, albeit without an acknowledgement of his presenting the typical certificate granting him permission to make the move. Third, the town of Burlington, in Burlington County, had been the capital of West Jersey, before the proprietary colonies of East and West Jersey had their charters revoked in 1702 and merged to form the royal colony of New Jersey. Though an incestuous marriage in one's family is typically something that would an embarrassment, my establishing specifically how incestuous the marriage of Jacob and Rachel (Adams) Adams was set in motion a chain of events that found evidence to support two family traditions, namely the year of the patriarch John Adams' birth and the place from which he had moved to Virginia (and where he was also born).

By stipulating a reason for the disownment that was totally different than given in the actual record, the error of omission in the above instances was substantial enough for a much stronger classification to be applied to the same--an error of commission. I am simply undecided on whether to classify it so because I am unable to say if the manner in which the disownment was classified was specifically to avoid drawing attention to that specific disownment, i.e., there were too few other instances of the same to warrant a different classification, or to be more specific would have violated the proprieties that Quakers are expected to observe, i.e., it was a "judgment call".

Even Original Records Can Contain Errors

With the possibility of errors being found even in original records stated earlier in this article, specifically what kinds of errors would one be likely to find? Well, the answer to that question would depend in no small part of the particular kind of record.

For example, a death certificate may be in error as to where an individual was born and the identities of his/her parents unless it was a parent or someone with first-hand knowledge of such detail who was the person providing the information. Even then, memory of detail can fade with time, and when an informant is a close relative of the decedent, he/she can be sufficiently traumatized by the death to be unable to recall details clearly.

While I can offer additional examples of errors that can be found in original records, they are also germane to topics of subsequent planned articles so will be included in the same.

In summary, one should always make the use of original records a key part of one's research as they may be found to contain significant differences from a corresponding published abstract or transcript due to errors on the part person who created the prior abstract/transcript that may be the result of lack of expertise, extenuating circumstances or intentional misrepresentation. When one should deem something to be an error will sometimes require that one make a judgment all, and one may well find oneself in the minority, particularly if the result is "goring a sacred cow".

Additional Resources

New Family Search ( The Family History Library is in the process of digitalizing its extensive collection of microfilm records and is now digitizing records that have never been microfilmed. These records are also being indexed, but the indexes are not added to the main search protocols until the indexing of a specific group of records is completed. FamilySearch also includes indexes to records that have been digitized by other entities and those indexes are linked to the actual images at the host site.

19th Century British Library Newspapers Digital Archive

Gale is a company that specializes in educational material targeted to libraries, schools and businesses. The 19th Century British Library Newspaper Digital Archive is free to patrons at most LDS Family History Centers, but is otherwise by subscription only.

Alexander Street Press (American Civil War)

Includes letters, diaries, and photographs, and is free to patrons at most LDS Family History Centers, but is otherwise by subscription only.

Family Search is a component of the larger of the Family History Library that is specifically linked to digital images of original records and indexes. It is a beta, so there are some images for which there are no indexes and gaps in the years a specific database will cover. Completed (with full index) databases are ultimately moved to the main site (, and the main website contains not just images of records that have been digitized and indexed by, but to digitized images hosted at other sites (I happen to know that the vital records posted at the West Virginia Archives and History website, are among the records for which links are included at This site is completely free, whether used at a Family History Center or elsewhere, though one may need to register, again, for free, to use effectively.

Godfrey Memorial Library

This is primarily a portal to other sites, but does have some material that is not available at other sites. Its primary emphasis is New England, but includes all U.S. states and many foreign countries. It is free for patrons at most LDS Family History Centers, but otherwise requires a paid subscription.

Historic Map Works Library Edition

This site provides access to over 470,000 full color maps of the United States and is available for free to patrons of most LDS Family History Centers. It may also be availbe at select public libraries, but I have no knowledge of specific libraries. ProQuest does not offer individual subscriptions.

Sign up for a free trial account and begin tracing your family history today.

Start 7-Day Free Trial »