Publisher of Quality Genealogy Materials
Volume 8, Number 15 Mountain Press, P.O. Box 400, Signal Mountain, Tennessee 37377, 1-423-886-6369 August 17, 2016
Publisher's Notes In this article we discuss transcribing old records and manuscripts. It is so important to study the handwriting from several entries before trying to translate the information you need. Even though it can be a difficult process, it definitely helps to reduce the number of mistakes. As always, I enjoy hearing from you.
James L. Douthat
TRANSCRIPTIONS In today’s world, fewer and fewer people are able to read the handwriting from times past. Fewer schools are teaching cursive writing to the grade school children since they are primarily taught how to print. It seems that a handwritten note is a thing of the past. However, being able to translate cursive writing is absolutely necessary for transcribing old records.
Having transcribed thousands and thousands of pages of the old handwritten court records, I have encountered a number of things that often are overlooked or just glossed over. The first of these is take the time to study the handwriting of the writer. Many of the original records were done by only a couple of different writers, therefore, it is imperative that we study the formation of the letters and words for that material. This takes a little time, but it really pays off in the end. Some of the original writers have a particular way of making certain letters different from the norm. In one eastern Tennessee county, the clerk wrote his letter “R” to look like a “B”. Therefore, the translation of many of the names from that era have a lot of the names that begin with the letter “R” beginning with a “B”. His last name was written “Bichards”. From other sources on the history of the county, I discovered his name was really Richards. Once this was discovered, the name of one of my grandmother’s uncles became clear. However, many of his family insist that the court record stands. His name was Jonathan Richard and not Jonathan B. Douthat. I happen to have his photograph with his wife and it was written on the back of the studio photograph as “Jonathan Richard Douthat”.
Census transcription is one of the most important documents that anyone transcribing has to take the time to study the manner of letter formation. This is where so many of the mistaken names come into play. Take a name like “Kell”. In one of the middle Tennessee counties where the name appears frequently, we find spellings like Keil, Kill, Keel, and even Kall. There happens to be a family of Keil and Kell in the county at the same time, so the distinction in these two names is crucial. Another name almost always mistranslated is JEHU which is an Old Testament name sometimes used, but not too frequently. It is almost always transcribed as JOHN. Reading quickly and in a hurry to get to the last name, it is slurred over all too frequently. This is a family name in one of my lines, so I am very conscious of the name. Take the time to study the handwriting for each manuscript.
When in doubt, try to get a copy of the original handwritten version of what it is that you are reading and to check for mistakes in the transcription. We ran across one the other day where a man in his will wants to free all of his slaves and give them a choice of being sent to Siberia or being sold. I can’t believe that many of the slaves would know where Siberia is in the first place. I wondered if the clerk that translated the will did not mean to send them to Liberia which was a very popular notion in the mid-nineteenth century. There is a world of difference between Siberia and Liberia. Many writers of the era make their capital “L” like the capital “S”.
There are some transcribing projects that make one think “Why did I start this????”. Case in point, a lady had her g-g-grandfather’s fifty year diary as a traveling minister. We started transcribing it and worked long hours day and night struggling over the handwritten manuscript. His hand writing would change about every five years and it never improved. In fact, each time it changed it got worse. It was by for the worse handwriting that I have ever seen. Sometimes a page would take us a full day to decipher the hen scratching and enter it into the computer which amounted to about 2.5 x 3 inches in the final results.
One of the worst transcriptions was the Special Presidential Pardons manuscript of the original request for the pardons. Each page of the microfilm was a different handwriting from an unidentified writer. Each page had to stand on its own merits. Each page was vital to the granting of the pardon by President Johnson following the Civil War. This one still remains unfinished as I lost the first reel of microfilm out of the four reel set. I was almost finished with the first reel when a friend borrowed it and I have not been able to retrieve it from their estate.
Any time you try to read an original manuscript take a few minutes to study the handwriting of the individual who wrote the original, even if you are just wanting to transcribe one name. This process assures you that the reading is the best you can do at the moment.
Best of luck transcribing!
Listed below are some of our Louisiana History and Biographies series that were originally published in the 1890s by the Southern Publishing Company. Each of these volumes contains the records for a particular Parish and we have added a full name index. The information was provided by the actual family, so it should be fairly correct.
If you have any questions or suggestions for future editions, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.