In elementary school, I remember the teacher lining the students up around the perimeter of the classroom one day.
Then she took the boy at the front of the line into the hall – so no one could hear – and told him a sentence.
When they returned, the boy whispered what the teacher had told him into the ear of the girl behind him. She then whispered it to the student behind her, and on it went around the room.
When the last student had been whispered the sentence, he was asked to say it aloud. Then the first boy told the class what the teacher had told him.
Needless to say, the two sentences were nothing alike, and so of course, everyone laughed.
We played the game several times, and never was the end result the same as the original. In fact, sometimes the last sentence made no sense at all. The meaning had been lost in translation, so to speak.
So it is with genealogy. Documents available online are usually accompanied by a transcription, and though the transcription may be easier to read than an old, faded, handwritten document, it may well be inaccurate or incomplete. After all, mistakes happen.
I’ve been trying for some time to hunt down an adopted aunt, who vanished after 1916. On rereading the transcription of the 1911 census, I noted her mother’s name was listed as Bessie Wallace. When I saw this, I got very excited, thinking it must be her biological mother’s name, for it was not her adopted mother’s name.
So off I went to follow this lead. After days of fruitless searching, I returned to the census, but this time I studied the original document, and there was my aunt – listed as the daughter of my grandfather, just as she should have been, and in the house next door was Bessie Wallace. The transcriber must have erroneously copied the information from the entry above my aunt’s.
If I’d read the original document in the first place, I could have saved myself a boatload of work.
Another common problem with transcriptions is misspelling. While searching for my husband’s uncle, Charles Butcher, I came across a 1916 census. I quickly perused the transcription, even though the person listed was Charles Buleher. The mother’s name was wrong too.
She was listed as Berrie Buleher. Since her name was Bessie, I would have discarded the census, except the address rang a bell. So off I went to the original document.
Granted, the penmanship wasn’t the greatest, but I could see the names were Bessie and Butcher.
Bessie’s name was transcribed incorrectly in another census too. Her middle name was Llewellyn, but the transcription listed her as Helwellyer.
Something researchers should realize is that transcriptions don’t always present all the information laid out in the original document. A marriage record for a set of great-great grandparents listed the occupation of the bride’s father as greengrocer.
This information was not on the transcription but proved most helpful in helping me identify the man in a business directory, where he was listed as a greengrocer. Likewise, I was able to identify one ancestor’s second wife – through a census where she was shown as owning the farm next door.
And on it goes.
Documents are laden with clues that may be omitted or misrepresented in a transcription, so get out your magnifying glass and take a good close look at those originals.