Some Attention to Why You Can’t Find the Record you Need…

A very thought-provoking  article appeared in the periodical Archives, Volume IV (1959) entitled “The Preservation of Ecclesiastical Records,” submitted by C.E. Welch. He describes various Local Government Acts of Parliament that authorized transfer of parish and diocesan records from one archive or record room to another.

When a government directive is issued, local officials do not automatically jump to and follow directions. There is a time during which they often question the value, or the purpose, or the cost. And since most such directives leave the methods of fulfillment to be worked out at the local level, resistance comes just as often from  not knowing just how to proceed.

The reason it was thought-provoking for me, is that, as a genealogy teacher describing the records and how to use them to advantage to build a pedigree, also includes telling the user where to find them. And here is the rub–records are not created nor preserved in a vacuum.

For example, among the probate papers kept in the district probate registry (after 1858) and in the diocesan registry (pre-1858), there are records that are not classified as pertaining to probate matters. So the local officials did their best to separate them. They transferred the probate documents and left the others where they were, since the  directive said to box and transfer the probate records.

Sometimes both registries were in the same building and use of the records was facilitated because you could just zip from one room to the other. Thus episcopal records and probate court documents could be cataloged with cross-references. The records of the Chester probate registry were divided into three parts and each part was sent to a different record office. This destroyed the original arrangement of the records–where is the guide on how to handle this event as a user?

There is a more serious problem. When an archive lacks space to house both the historical records as well as current documents being generated, clerks make the decision to dispose or sell non-essential records to the antique or popular market. This brings in  professional book and manuscript dealers. For example, once the district civil registration offices were closed, the district copies of the records were no longer needed. And these large registers kept by the superintendent registrar were available for sale on the open market.

I, personally, shuddered–as you might expect me to. And when I saw  documents being sold in bins for $10.00 to $25.00 each at amusement parks, I really struggled. Somebody’s ancestors I said. To be sure, I bought a couple of pages (the bin I looked at sold individual pages, not the full record). I have also ordered original documents from sales catalogs–you can get your name on the mailing list for any number of dealers and book sellers who will accommodate you by taking your money and shipping your documents.

Many archives and most libraries of any size, have a “miscellaneous” category where loose papers are filed. When I am working on an especially difficult problem, I usually check this section first–for tax roll pages without a date or handwritten wills without a jurisdiction; and often, I find records that fill gaps in the research for a specific family.

What draws my attention are the documents that seem out of place where they are filed. My friend Afton and I went to Gibson County Tennessee (West Tennessee) one time to visit the Historical Society. We were looking for the origins of a specific family that left Shelby County (the Memphis area) and spent some time in Gibson County. Copies of original militia rolls for East Tennessee were among their holdings. Immediately, this distraction took our attention and we obtained copies of the copies to take with us for careful study later. Seems that the family we sought was from East Tennessee–right after the American Revolution. Their militia activities were documented  in these militia rolls–found in the county where they ended up.

You can do this kind of searching at the Family History Library (or any other large genealogy library) where the records of many jurisdictions have been collected for research. I look for the “miscellaneous” files on microfilm or among the digital historical records first. Partial wills, separate pages of tax rolls, record fragments from the burned courthouse, and so on.

You can also do this kind of research online–write a list of the keywords you need and check them for internet access. The word “miscellaneous” is a great keyword or record qualifier to help you find missing information about your ancestors. And don’t neglect the antique documents and rare books dealers. Order a few book catalogs from the sales market–

Or the genealogy periodicals where the discovery of lost records will usually be announced first. Articles and short contributions from members of local societies–begin your own list of such announcements. Your favorite genealogist, Arlene Eakle

PS We still have snow falling and melting, and while the weather cooled down this past week, we are headed for warm temperatures. Our valley is a huge lake with small islands where houses and struggling to pump the water out onto the desert or into newly dug ditches. And the snow caps on the mountains nearby are reminders that it isn’t over yet. For all of that snow will melt and run into the rivers now cresting at flood stage in several areas of newly declared national disaster. Even though we long for the sun–it is an enemy bringing more snow melt.

PPS My Library and I are safe and dry. Thank you for all your prayers and messages of encouragement.

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