Ah the excitement we all feel when we discover a long-hidden document! It might be a birth record or a marriage or perhaps an obituary. We’ve talked in the past about the importance of transcribing the information in the record. When we carefully read the words beyond the names and dates, we can find additional clues to our family history. For example, a marriage record usually includes witnesses. Perhaps the witness is a well-known relative or someone new to explore… There is always another record to find!
Often when we find documents they are written in cursive and may or may not be legible due to fading, a hasty clerk’s scrawl or an unfamiliar language. The good news is that there are many books and tools that help make our translations easier. Here are a few ideas to help you.
After doing research for many years, you start to have “radar” for your family name when search online documents or books. You can spot your family name even if you can’t read the rest of the document. Eventually to make the most of our finds, we need to read more than the name.
Revisit Faded Copies
There are times when faded records or poor copies mean that you need to find another source or go to the original record. If you found such a record many years ago, try looking again at resources to see if a better copy is in existence. I remember finding a Michigan census records on microfilm that was a terrible copy. I could just barely read the family name and enough the first names to know it was my family but nothing else. The good news is today that same record is online and completely clear to read.
Check the Resources
To get the best copy of a document, look at the resources/source to find where the original resides. Something that was copied poorly on a copy machine or older technology can now be photographed digitally providing a cleaner, clearer copy.
Look for Corroborating Information
Doesn’t it seem like the records before and after your ancestor’s record are written in lovely legible cursive? And your ancestor’s record seems to have been scrawled with a broken crayon in poor penmanship by a crazy man? Me too!! When trying to read challenging writing, you can try to identify a date by looking at corroborating documents.
Recently I looked at a Parish baptism record for an ancestor. In addition to hard-to-read script, the year was blurred. I found the year by looking at records before and after my ancestor’s but wanted to confirm that information by reviewing what I already knew about this person. I went back to the Civil birth record which was a clear copy. By comparing these two records, I could confirm this was my ancestor and the dates aligned.
Hopefully these tips help you as you start to transcribe your genealogy finds. Next week we will continue with the focus on translating languages and the resources available.
“Translation is not a matter of words only; it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.”
With a lifelong passion for genealogy and history, the author enjoys the opportunity to share genealogy tidbits, inspiring others to research and write their family story.