Sloppy record keeping at the time they lived


Are you working from early census records and getting nowhere? Spellings of the names of foreign-born residents are so unreliable. What people forget is that the purpose of the census was to determine population for congressional representation.

The bottom line: Census takers did not care if they got the spelling right. They cared that they got the count right.

Only in America could a beautiful name like Regis Bouthillette be documented as Horatio Botiere. So if the name you are looking for seems to come completely out of the blue, take a good look at it and try various phonetic pronunciations. Work from there to find alternative names/spellings. Also compare it to other names in the area to see if there similar names/spellings that might be a clue. Just be careful not to jump to the conclusion that one name is automatically related to another, nor that other names are correct and yours is wrong.

Not only do we have the problem of bad record keeping, but we confound it with bad transcription errors. While the volunteers who spend hours transcribing records for use on the internet are a wonderful (some say saintly) group, they can only do as well as the quality of the documents they are working from and the legibility of the handwriting. If you have never anguished over the handwriting of Russian-born census taker, you have no clue how very difficult transcription is.

The bottom line is to keep an open mind about every name, date and place that you are given in old records. Remember that the ability to read and write in English was not required of immigrants until 1924, so those who came here from other countries did their best to answer questions accurately, but misunderstandings were inevitable.

Likewise, clerks and enumerators did their best to process information as best they could, but pens did not come with spell check. They could spell what they heard, but they were facing some very thick accents. Ultimately they needed to manage an awesome amount of information in a very limited time.

Another unfortunate reality is that not minister was meticulous, especially when heat was scarce and fingers were numb. The same minister may have written the same names four or five different ways. No one cared, as long as God didn’t care. Just as Shakespeare has several different spellings of his own name in his own hand, so do many of our ancestors have several spellings of their names in their clergyman’s handwriting, with several shortcuts, and several squiggles that only meant something to the man who wrote them.

© 2006, Jan Nearing, LaMere Consulting, Midland, MI. All rights reserved.


Copyright © 2012 all rights reserved Jan Nearing
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