In my last article I illustrated the importance of coming to understand online records. I used an Ancestry.com record of Elenor Kendall’s birth and death. I went through the steps a researcher would follow to trace that record back to the original source. We learned the information had been copied from a copy of a copy of an original and neither the birth date nor the death date remained correct. (See “Take Time to Understand Online Records.”)
The reality is far worse. The copy on Ancestry is not a 3rd generation copy, but a 7th generation copy! And with each copy, small changes were introduced.
Generation 1 – The Old Paper Book
The original proprietors record of the town of Ashford, Connecticut was commonly known as “The Old Paper Book.” Elenor’s 1727 birth and death would have been recorded therein.
Generation 2 – Copy of the Old Paper Book
In 1770 “the Old Paper Book” was transcribed into a new volume:
The following is a Coppy of What
is Called the old Paper Book and all
the old Record that I found Belonging
theirunto Without ye Alteration of one
Word. tho not in Just the Same form
This Book Was Transcribed in the Months
of Febry March & April Anno Domini
1770 By Ebenr Byles Town Clerk
and attested at ye End ---------------
Page 2 documents Elenor Kendall’s birth on 5 April 1727 and death on 2 August 1727:
Elenor ye Daughter of Isaac Kendall by Elener his Wife Was Bor[obscured by paper repair]
5th Day of April 1727 --- & Sd Eliner Kendall Deceasd the 2d
of August Next following ----------------------------------------------
Generation 3 – Barbour Collection Arnold Transcript
Lucius Barnes Barbour of Hartford, Connecticut directed a project to abstract Connecticut town vital records up to about 1850. Among those he hired to help was James N. Arnold, known for his Rhode Island vital record abstracts. Consequently, the abstracts were known as the “Arnold” transcripts.3 Among these was an abstract Arnold did in 1911 of Ashford’s “Ye Old Paper Book,” which he designated as volume A.4
Generation 4 – The Slip Index
Barnes gave the Arnold Transcripts to the Connecticut state library which typed the information onto printed forms. Each form was cut into twelve small slips.5
This is Elenor’s slip:
Notice that somewhere between generation 2 and generation 4 the birth year was changed from 1727 to 1827. Apparently, the typist was uncertain and added a footnote indicating it was “probably 1727?” The death month was changed from August to April. And a surname variation was added that wasn’t present in generation 2.
Generation 5 – The Volume Index
The state library alphabetized the slips for each town, grouped surname variations, retyped the information onto rag sheets, and bound them into volumes.7 Each town received a copy (labeled “The Arnold Copy”) of their town’s volume. 8 The state retained a set, which they call the volume index.9
The page from the Ashford volume containing Elenor’s birth and death information is:
Notice what changed between the slip and the volume. The word “probably” was removed from the footnote. That’s a pretty important qualifier to be thrown away. The asterisk was removed from the footnote, leaving the asterisk superimposed over the comma looking like a semicolon. The surname grouping removed the surname variation.
Generation 6 – White’s Publication
Lorraine Cook White typeset and published the Barbour Collection in 55 volumes titled The Barbour Collection of Connecticut Town Vital Records.
Here is the page containing Elenor Kendall:
Notice that White’s transcription of Elenor’s record is nearly flawless. A trivial quirk appeared because of the asterisk superimposed over a comma in the volume index. White interpreted it as a semicolon and then inserted a space before it.
Generation 7 – The Ancestry Database
Ancestry indexed White’s publication and published it as an online database.
Here is the record of the birth and death of Elenor Kendall:
Notice that Ancestry’s indexers changed the death date from 2 April 1828 to 2 April 1727, a hundred years before the birth. The database design provided them no other way to capture the alternative year. Consequently, they lost the ambiguity of the century: 1727 vs. 1827.
Take time to understand the databases you use online. Try to get a sense of how many generations of changes precede the one you are viewing.
Changes are introduced just about every time a record is copied. Just like the children’s game, Telephone or Gossip, the more intermediaries, the worse the misinterpretation. Just like an old photocopy machine, the more intermediaries, the worse the degradation. Don’t bother with the intermediaries as I did here. Always pursue the earliest copy.
1. Ashford, Connecticut, Proprietors Records (1705-1770), preface; Town Clerk’s Office, Ashford; FHL microfilm 3,676.
2. Ashford, Connecticut, Proprietors Records, 2.
3. “Vital Records for Connecticut (Birth, Marriage & Death Records),” LibGuide, CT State Library (http://libguides.ctstatelibrary.org/hg/vitalrecords/Barbour : accessed 2 July 2016).
4. Lucius Barnes Barbour, “Connecticut Vital Records, Ashford Births – Marriages – Deaths, 1710-1851, Barbour Collection” (bound typescript, 1921, Connecticut State Library, Harford), ii; FHL microfilm 2,967.
5. Lorraine Cook White, comp., The Barbour Collection of Connecticut Town Vital Records: Andover 1848-1879, Ashford 1710-1851, Avon 1830-1851, [vol. 1] (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1994), i.
6. Lucius Barnes Barbour, “Barbour Collection of Connecticut Vital Records prior to 1850” (card file, n.d., Connecticut State Library, Hartford), alphabetical entry for Elenor Kendall, born 5 April 1827. False coloring by the author.
7. White, The Barbour Collection, [vol. 1], i.
8. New England Historic Genealogical Society, “Connecticut's Barbour Collection of Vital Records,” American Ancestors (http://www.americanancestors.org : accessed 2 July 2016), Browse > Articles > Author > New England Historic Genealogical Society > Connecticut's Barbour Collection of Vital Records.
9. “Vital Records for Connecticut,” LibGuide.
10. Barbour, “Connecticut Vital Records, Ashford…Barbour Collection” (bound typescript), 95. The bound volumes have been digitized and indexed on AmericanAncestors.com, including p. 95.
11. Detail from White, The Barbour Collection, [vol. 1], 137; digital image, “Connecticut Town Birth Records, pre-1870 (Barbour Collection)” (http://ancestry.com : accessed 25 June 2016), Ashford Vital Records 1710-1851 > image 121 of 253.
12. “Connecticut Town Birth Records, pre-1870 (Barbour Collection),” database, Ancestry (http://ancestry.com : accessed 25 June 2016), search “Elenor Kendall” (do not specify date); citing Lorraine Cook, ed. The Barbour Collection of Connecticut Town Vital Records, 55 vols. (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1994-2002).