The Importance of Original Documents

I've had an experience that I'd like to share with other family historians. In 1997 I wrote to a county court clerk (the county name isn't important), asking for a marriage record. Instead of sending me a copy of the original record, they sent me a letter with the information transcribed into it. I accepted that as reliable, and went on a wild goose chase for nearly two years, looking for someone who didn't exist.

In transcribing the original record, several crutial mistakes were made. The names of the parents of the groom were completely wrong. The middle initial of the groom was also wrong. The groom's birth place was the wrong state. And finally, the marriage date was wrong. Unfortunately, I knew none of this for nearly two years.

A tip from another researcher led me to question the validity of this information, so I wrote to the clerk asking for a copy of the record. Instead, they sent me a Marriage Certificate containing the information, but missing the parents' names and the birth places of bride and groom. I wrote again, asking for the missing information. Luckily, the clerk couldn't read the writing in the record, and sent me a copy of it to read for myself -- which is what I wanted in the first place!

The moral of this story is that I should have asked for a photo copy of the record in the first place, rather than accept someone else's reading of it. Old writing is often hard to read, and I've made mistakes, too. But if I have the original record, I can always go back and look at it again. That's why I will always politely insist on getting a photo copy of original records from now on.

This file was last updated on 7/15/2004.

Home Contents What's New Myself