My Bit for Genealogy

typewriter, writing

photo: Steve Depolo, creative commons license

What makes a set of records helpful to people researching their families? Having it digitized for search. And, how does that happen? Not easily. We forget that up until about the 1960s many public records were hand-written.  Before the typewriter was invented (1860), all records were written completely by hand. As a mystery writer, I find these historic documents—and their tantalizing glimpses of the-story-behind-the-story—fascinating!

Believe it or not, early county clerks were not selected based on the legibility of their handwriting. Add to that possible errors and idiosyncrasies in spelling, particularly of names, where parental creativity sometimes trumps convention (note the sly RNC reference; Freud at work). These make deciphering documents a challenge requiring Sherlock Holmes’s extra-large magnifier.

A 72-hour Challenge

To get some help with the massive task of digitizing, sponsored a three-day event last weekend, in which volunteers from around the world examined original records and entered data into pre-designed forms. In fact, some 116,475 people indexed over 10 million records in those three days!

I entered data extracted from hundreds of handwritten Kentucky marriage records from the 1930s and 1940s, as well as some from the 1880s—before the clerks used forms. Also English probate records for loads of people, last name Cox. Also 1920 census pages for Montreal.

Here’s what I learned:

  • Mothers of couples married in the 1930s and 40s in Kentucky were very likely to be named Eula, Lula, Effie, Bessie, or Elsie. There were many Hatties and Hesters, Mabels, Myrtles, and a Flossie (not married to a Freddie, which will disappoint you if you grew up reading The Bobbsey Twins series). Great ideas for naming characters born in that period.
  • I liked the sense of humor of the parents who named their son Pearley Bates. There was a second man named Pearl, too. And a woman.
  • This data entry volunteer was left to wonder why some marriage records had written at the top “Please Do Not Publish.”
  • On one day, Ray O. Schomberg divested himself of two daughters, ages 17 and 19, to men of the U.S. Air Force from exciting California and not-so-exciting Ohio.
  • Many couples came from Ohio to be married in the border counties of Kentucky. If memory serves, there was no waiting period from license to ceremony in Kentucky. Some of these were church marriages nevertheless, some by Justices of the Peace, and some in “police court.” Eyebrows raised.
  • Most couples were of legal age to marry without parental consent (established how?) —21 in those days.
  • A few brides were only 16 and one was 15—the groom another Air Force man, age 24—and the clerk of court noted that the witnesses were “John Smith (the bride’s father) and James Smith” (holding the shotgun, probably). Without question her father would be there, and the shotgun too, if not in fact, in the groom’s imagination.
  • In the 1880 records, many men signed their marriage licenses with an x (“his mark”); by 1950, I saw only one record where the groom could not write his name.
  • The English probate records documented the other end of the continuum of family relationships. One told how Arnold Cox, dentist, left his estate of £54 to Maude Cox, spinster (his sister?). To spend your life as a village dentist and die with only £54 to show for it seems more than a little sad.
  • I was intrigued by the number of Coxes from northern England who left bequests to Archie Cox, chemist. In England a chemist is a pharmacist, and I just wondered whether our Archie might have helped some of his ancient and ailing relatives along, just a bit.

This project provided the chance to indulge in speculation about the lives of previous generations, as revealed through their documentary trail. And I was glad to know that if any of the descendants of the perhaps a thousand people whose stories I helped record are interested in those lives, I’ve made their job a little easier.

Family is a free alternative to Both are maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and each has strengths and weaknesses. I’ve found considerable information about family members using both.

P.S. — See that photo by Steve Depolo? If he has family from Kentucky, their marriage records may be online now. I happen to know!

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