Piano lessons

Alicia Crane WilliamsThat pile of photocopied original documents you have sitting on your table looks especially mountainous when you start compiling genealogical text. How much of it needs to be included? How should it be presented? What is important and what is not?

Before you can properly transcribe, abstract, or translate records, you need to know what they say. What are the parts of a deed, of a will, what is an “execution” from the court? These can all be topics for future Vita Brevis posts. In the meantime, look at examples of abstracts in the Early New England Families Study Project sketches for ideas. Study articles in the Register for examples of translating and interpreting documents. (In fact, here’s a challenge: read an issue of the Register from cover to cover sometime, whether you are interested in the topics or not.)

When you are ready to do something with your document, there are three basic choices:

Transcript: There are very few situations where a full transcript of an original record needs to appear in a genealogy. Wills often have long preambles, deeds are at least ¾ boiler plate legal text, and court records contain more jargon. Full transcriptions of wills and inventories are sometimes given for the founding father of a family, but we would end up with a six-volume set if we included such detail for everyone.

Abstract: The alternative to a full transcription is an abstract giving basic, pertinent information, sometimes with partial transcripts of sections of the document. I like to include quotes in the original language of the record for “flavor,” and I always look for interesting descriptions of property, but all the metes and bounds do not have to be included, especially when they involve rocks and trees. Some records might be abstracted in less detail than others and some records may not be abstracted at all.

Translate: If we are dealing with a person who bought and sold a lot of land, or with an estate that was contested by heirs for decades, we can consolidate the information and generalize – “Joshua Scottow was an active conveyor of real estate in Boston and Maine, buying, selling and mortgaging multiple properties over forty years between the 1650s and 1690s” – rather than include every single deed. If we need to interpret multiple documents in the process of constructing a proof argument, rather than trying to present abstracts of all records, we can paraphrase and summarize. Of course, sources still need to be cited in the footnotes.

Any, or all, of these choices can be used in your genealogy. Start with a will or a deed in your collection, abstract it and then compare to the examples mentioned above. Practice makes perfect … unless we are discussing my piano lessons.

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.

22 thoughts on “Piano lessons

  1. Thank you, Alicia! I am currently doing my first hand-written research report. Your recent series on writing has been so helpful to me, I am an avid hobbyist, trying to be more thorough and professional. I do quite a bit of research for cousins and friends and really want to elevate my skills. Thank you, again for passing on some of your skills.

  2. Re: Piano Lessons. As a former deed researcher for both legal and civil engineering firms as well as a genealogist I want to encourage reading the entire document more than once before you discard the “boiler plate” parts. You might miss some very important information. Lesson number one learned from my Dad who taught me the art of researching deeds and probate. He worked as a surveyor and deed researcher for over 40 years. Reading word is especially important if you are using the document for genealogy purposes. Enjoy for blogs.

    1. Barbara, you are absolutely right. I should have distinguished the differences between the material that goes into the book vs the need to read the whole document. Especially when dealing with these old deeds where the format varies from county to county, clerk to clerk, and year to year!

      1. Thank you. There is so much to reading and abstracting legal documents as we can see from the questions asked. They brought back so many memories of working with and learning from my Dad. I can’t wait to read your next blog on deeds etc.

  3. Alicia, one question I have when reading deeds is whether the deed is actually a mortgage, especially when one of the principals is a well-known merchant from Boston, the land is in a new town, and the amount of the deed is expressed in pounds/shillings/pence, and not just a rounded figure in pounds. Also, do you know whether property that came into the possession of a stepfather from his new wife would be put in his name in a new deed? Thanks, :Eileen O’Brien

    1. Eileen this is a question that would take a lot of time to answer as the wording of the documents changed overtime. Sometimes a mortgage will look exactly like a deed at a glance. The first thing to do is to check the margins to see if there is a notation that a mortgage was paid partially or in full. That is the easy way. But——————-that is only part of the story. I spent hours in the grantor and grantee indexes to find answers to questions like the ones you asked. I am sure that Alicia will answer all the questions you have in her upcoming blog on deed researching. I loved deed and probate research. It is as much fun as reading a good mystery story.

      1. Thanks, Barbara. I have noticed the notations in the margins at times–always exciting to discover. And thanks for the heads-up on Alicia’s upcoming blog.

    2. Eileen, as Barbara notes, deeds come in all shapes and sizes. The marginal notation with the date that the mortgage was “satisfied” is one of the best keys, but not always present. Sometimes there are two deeds recorded at the same time, the first the “sale” to the holder of the mortgage, and the second the “release” back to the property owner. And, of course, if the owner resells the same property later, it may mean and earlier “sale” was a mortgage. A lot to discuss in upcoming posts!

      1. In some places when a deed’s “consideration money” had not been paid, the original document was left with the County Clerk or Register of Deeds. When proof of satisfaction of the money owed was produced, the official turned over the original document to the grantee or representative.

        This procedure resulted in another type of marginal note when the document was recorded: “delivered to” the proper recipient. The receiver might be an estate administrator, or could be an estate heir long after the transaction took place. The date of delivery should be given, and sometimes the entry included method, such as by mail. These delivery notations are always of interest, as much as the satisfaction-of-mortgage items.

      2. In some areas where Oil and Gas Leases were recorded in deeds, especially from the late 1880s, the Clerk or Register of Deeds may create a new series of record books where heirs to the lands quit-claimed their interests in the oil/gas.

        In the original lease record the official may enter a marginal notation cross-indexing to these later volumes, a very handy entry indeed 😉

      3. Thank you, Alicia. This is one of the things I had noticed–two deeds passed the same day with the same buyer/seller and vice versa. Your confirming them as a mortgage really helps because it tells me that the most important settler in our town was acting as a mortgager, often for soldiers in his “unit” that patrolled during Grey Lock’s/Lovewell’s War. I have tried to abstract all the deeds, grantor and grantee, for all persons in our town from incorporation in 1728 until 1764. It has been a lot of work, but has yielded so much info about the town. and settlers. Any other info on the subject of deeds will be greatly appreciated. THX again!

  4. Remember The Witnesses!

    In early deeds, at least one witness is related to the signer(s), either directly or at second hand (i.e. work or investing as well as in-law by marriage); rarely are all of them non-relatives. That happens more frequently later.

    Best to start off with the self-query “Are these people related?” The second witness, if a woman, is there to “represent” the female second signer. Represent is not the correct legal word for the concept; the female-female correspondence is what is important.

    Example: In a receipt for a residuary inheritance, Rev. Edward Bulkeley signed for it on behalf of his wife Lucian with the witnesses being Rev. William Clarke and Jane Bulkeley; Lucian herself did not sign the receipt, and she might not even have been there in Boston that day! But daughter Jane was there to “witness” her mother’s key role in the transaction as the inheritor. Clarke did the same for Edward.

    This receipt and its correct interpretation were a part of the link of facts that established that Edward and Lucian’s daughter Mary had married the Rev. Clarke of Chelmsford.

    If Lucian had been deceased, her three surviving daughters (Elizabeth, Mary, and Jane) would have the residuary legatees and the whole signing and witnessing of the receipt would have looked entirely different.

    1. Mr. Gerrity–thank you for the info on witnesses. Could you comment on who the writer of the original deed would usually be (perhaps the justice of the peace?). When I first started reading deeds, I was surprised that the j. p. often doubled as one of the witnesses. Could you also comment on the title of “gentleman”? Usually it seems to be a progression from “yeoman,” but I don’t know what it represented–perhaps someone who no longer did farm labor, but hired laborers? Also, would you have any idea of the percentage of deeds that never made it to the Registries? And if a deed does not specify a price, e.g. “for diverse causes me thereunto moving,” would it have involved barter or exchange?–Thanks, Eileen

      1. You’re welcome! And I appreciate your trust in a fellow member. All 4 of your questions deserve fuller responses, but brief here is better.

        As to 1.) “writers of original deeds”, well, early it was usually who had a good “Hand” and knew the ins & outs, the boiler plate, that a particular document required. Lechford was never a magistrate but his technical knowledge was the best in MBC and so people used him, which is why his Note Book is so valuable. (Would that he had kept his mouth shut and stayed longer.) Later in the 17th cent., the Browns of Concord were known for their write-ups (& were long time town clerks as well); each town had men like that. Throughout the colonial period people did it themselves as “proper form” was something of a person’s common education, just the same as learning how to keep book accounts, so valuable in a society with so little hard cash around. “Country lawyer” was a True Type; if you didn’t get the wording correct, they could skewer you at the county court (see the introduction in vol. 1 of Adams Legal Papers on some of JA’s failures). Responding to that desire for self-improvement were publications such as Samuel Freeman’s The Massachusetts Justice (1799) and James Sullivan’s more formal Law of Property in Mass. (1805) but printed info like that had been circulating decades before. The best single overview is the Colonial Society’s Law in Colonial New England (what a resource). So, if you studied up, and practiced a clear hand, you too could be a scribe.

        As to 2.) “gentleman” – Yes! Someone who “managed” their assets rather than did physical labor, though in England you could keep the style of “gentleman” while being pretty hard up as it was more of a social status designation than a 1-to-1 wealth marker. It was less of a social marker here, where “Mr.” became the usual top-level denoter of position and wealth. By say 1735 you will find an increasing use of “Esq” to denote “gent” status but it was never a rule. I like yeoman; I’ve been seeing it in NY deeds of 1790-1820 still as well as in early deeds. It clearly meant that you had built something on and from the land. Nonetheless, Google each designation or go check out the Concise Oxford English Dictionary at your local library. (Now, there’s a Treasure.)

        As to 3.) “percentage of deeds never registered”? Higher than we’d like to admit, especially in the very early years of MBC where filing deeds was More Commonly done at the Town level than at the County–because of the cost of the filing fees! The negative impact of the filing fees on wills at probate is equally great. But the fees were how the counties paid for their operations; there was no general tax shared. See Donahue’s The Great Meadow where the loss of Concord’s quarter records can not be made up with what’s on file at Middlesex County: a few East Quarter deeds exist because a South Quarter resident insisted on having his holdings cross-filed!

        As to 4.) no cash specified but for “reasons”, well, yes, it could involve barter, though that wording would make me think of a more personal connection between the Gtor & Gtee, which the classic “for love” covers. The exchange might be for debts canceled by the sale. You need to ask if there are any other transactions between these two.

        THAT leads us to a Legal Resource untouched by genealogists and not imaged at FamilySearch nor Ancestry: Civil Actions as processed through each colony’s version of Massachusetts’ Courts of Common Pleas. There are the formally recorded volumes as well as file papers. File Papers!

        The potential is HUGE re genealogical issues. Again, see 2 Colonial Society publications of the 1930s — Suffolk County Court Records. The focus of both is on civil suits and some probate, not general session operational and criminal presentments. Formally, CP was established out of the old courts when Mass Bay became a province and lasts in essence well into the 1850s when the Mass Court system is overhauled.

        A hint of what is there can be seen in the Mass. Hist. Society’s online finding aid for the Robert Treat Paine Papers, of which some actual documents are imaged & up online (but not the two I want–$40 for copies, egads). Before & after being a Signer, he was a very active lawyer in Bristol County, and then a judge there.

        Hope this helps!

        1. Your reply is one of the best I have seen. Thank you so much. As I relied on the attorney I worked for to explain any questions I might have had on the laws of land transfers I didn’t need to refer to textbooks etc. I am printing your reply out for future reference as I have been retired for ages. More time for genealogy now except for when I am playing with 3 great grandsons.

        2. Robert–Thank you so much for all this information. I have been putting off getting into judicial archives, but looked at Benjamin Prescott’s court records at MHS–really amazing stuff. Will follow up on all your suggestions. Thx again.

    2. In some places I have seen deeds that were actually written out by the Court clerk or by one of the Justices. Often the first-signing witness was the person who actually wrote the document — and this may also occur with wills. Then the witnesses were often hangers-on at Court rather than relatives of any of the parties.

      This procedure was useful when the deed gave property metes-and-bounds, which could be copied from the last recorded deed for the same property, a document (usually) readily found in the Courthouse where the new deed was being written.

  5. Look at the Handwriting!

    Yes, the handwriting. Even an accomplished transcriber & abstractor like H. R. Peter Rounds in his 2 vol. Bristol County, MA Abstracts tended to see the stylistic stroke on names ending with certain consonants as the letter “e”. Job Paine of Freetown is now “forever” “JOBE” in the abstract of his father’s Thomas will and in the index and at Ancestry, etc. All due to a curled stroke of the pen that the county probate clerk used to finish off the letter “b”.

    These orthographic quirks go in and out of fashion but need to be borne in mind. If you have been doing a lot of census searches that go beyond the Ancestry transcript, you are already aware of the wide range of personal idiosyncracies among the enumerators, but this is true of county clerks as well.

    Another reason is that sometimes actual spellings are not just “flavor”, especially re the way a person spelled his/her names. The Bulkeleys always spelt their surname that way, resisting all outside efforts to turn it in to “Buckly”!

    We recognize this about wills (Ralph Paine of Freetown was to himself really Ralf Pain in his 1727 will). BUT even for deeds as “recorded”, the clerk may have reproduced exactly how the original deed was spelled. It is not a quirk of the clerk but his faithful representation what he actually saw. This usually has to do with names, and how the name is spelled can be a “clue”, especially if that spelling is followed in other deeds and in other formats.**

    In even rarer circumstances, the deed as filed is in the handwriting of the seller! This seems to have been a not uncommon occurrence in Vermont before 1800. The clerks would ask the sellers to provide the “file” copy. Hey! If there were 2 copies being drawn up anyways, why not a third? Saved the town clerk a good deal of extra work.

    In any transcription and/or abstract as printed, such as Rounds noted above, these more-important-than-you-realize “facts” can be lost. But they may be more crucial “clues” than you know. Cogitating on them later is why it is important to make as accurate a transcription BEFORE turning it into an abstract.

    Not just READ ALL THE WORDS, but —

    Consider All The Words As Written and in the Style as they appear.

    ** Clearly this is less & less important when pre-printed forms start to be used, but even those have a lot of blanks spaces that are filled in by hand.

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