As is

Genealogists spend a lot of time correcting published genealogical works, which is especially ironic when it comes to Clarence Almon Torrey’s New England Marriages Prior to 1700, published by NEHGS and the work upon which the Early New England Families Study Project is based.

We have constant inquiries about, and requests to fix, typographical mistakes and transcription errors in the Torrey database on, which is not really a “database” but an index to the images from the three-volume print publication, also published by NEHGS.

We can’t make those changes because Torrey’s work is an “as is” publication.

Torrey’s “Marriages” is a transcription of a handwritten manuscript that was created over decades.[1] The compiler began by abstracting information from books in the NEHGS library relating to marriages that took place in New England (or in a few cases, Long Island) between 1620 and 1700 (despite the title “Prior to 1700”) on slips of paper that he alphabetized. He then copied the information from the slips onto sheets of paper and bound them into twelve volumes (containing, eventually, an estimated 37,000 entries). Additions, changes and corrections thereafter were written on these pages – sometimes with fountain pen, sometimes ball point pen, sometimes in pencil, resulting in blotches, smudges, and wear and tear. Torrey’s handwriting, itself, can be cryptic even when not smudged! (The example image above is one of his neater pages.)

The version of the manuscript on was transcribed in 2001 by a team that made every effort to achieve accuracy by proof-reading transcriptions against the manuscript and checking source citations listed in the bibliography. However, “Reflecting a document that was created over many years, readers will find internal inconsistencies and even mistakes in the book” [emphasis added].

Unlike the Early New England Families Study Project sketches, created specifically for on-line publication and easily amended or even replaced when necessary,[2] the Torrey database only reproduces the images from the published books and cannot be changed on-line.

So, what is a thoroughly confused researcher to do when page numbers or source citations or towns or names just don’t make sense? Do what any good genealogist does, go hunting. Page numbers being the major problem in the transcription, go to the source’s index, if there is one. You will often find something listed as appearing on page 266 is actually on 188, for example. The “short form” source citations are technically all given full citations in the bibliography, but there are omissions and errors there, too. Some source citations in the text remain illegible and sometimes Torrey used two or more short citations for the same book (over the years one forgets, you know). Use your imagination and see if you can figure it out.

If imagination fails, then you are all invited to contact me ( I may or may not be able to answer your questions – there will be entries we will never fully translate – but having studied Clarence’s work now for nearly fifty years, I can take a stab at it.


[1] See David Curtis Dearborn’s “Introduction” to the collection.

[2] Two “Version 2” replacements are about to be [or have just been] posted – Samuel Jenney and Joseph Andrews.

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.

9 thoughts on “As is

  1. I understand the need to preserve and present the work that was created many years ago. But it seems appropriate to annotate the work with the corrections (ignoring typos) that others identify. For the benefit of the next reader.

    1. Richard, Indeed that would be the ideal situation, but logistically impossible at this time. In the library they used to have a “Book of Corrections” kept at the librarians’ desk where patrons could report corrections. A penciled note would be put into the book where the correction was needed “See Book of Corrections” to alert patrons. Technology will undoubtedly take us to a place in the future where we have some kind of database Book of Corrections. It is just a matter of logistics.

  2. Alicia, this is a great summary of what Torrey is, and you understand the frustrations involved in trying to make it presentable for CD and then online publication – something I was deeply involved with back around 2000. It would be well to emphasize that it is one of those sources, like the DAR Patriot Index, that is best used for clues to further research, and should NEVER BE USED ALONE AS A CITATION. Corrections are impossible, as you pointed out, but maybe it would work to flag entries when relevant new articles appear in reputable journals. Question: how much effort should be put into correcting old sources, vs. presenting new research? I think there’s room for a new type of journal article, one that traces salient errors back to their source and shows how they proliferated. The July 2016 issue of GMNJ has an excellent example of this, concerning the Rush family of Somerset Co., NJ, and their claimed descent from the noted Dr. Benjamin Rush.

    1. Jane, Thanks. The problem is that there is no practical way to flag the entries on the scanned pages from Torrey, as far as I know, and the labor involved would be more than it is worth. Articles, while certainly to be encouraged, are too few and far between to be effective for something as large as Torrey, and no matter how many times we say “use with caution,” website users will automatically assume that if it is there, it has to be right. The solution is, as I noted in my reply to Richard, above, some kind of accessible online database where patrons and staff could post corrections. The Catch-22 in this is that directly posted corrections would not be vetted for accuracy and corrections posted through a staff member would undoubtedly be a full-time job!

      1. Hi, Oh yes!! The famous handwriting/second and third thoughts challenge!! While troublesome, it forces me to be a better student. (Darn it!) When I look at family trees in Ancestry, I consider them as possible starting points, no guarantees at all that they will help me. In so doing, I chase and chase, but always find something interesting. Whether it is relevant to my project isn’t the point — it may give me a thought-starter that will chisel away at the bricks. This post is especially valuable. Many thanks!

  3. I think this situation creates a great opportunity for a strong willed genealogist and hopefully one with a robust and long life ahead to collect suggested corrections; verify and vet each one; and and then produce a a lovely Update and Corrections volume to put up for sale and then retire happily every after as a rich genealogist. I guess for now I’ll have to find my hints in Torrey, then chase down original source documents to verify entries that I find on my ancestors of interest. Great article !

  4. I’m surprised there is no mention of the “Torrey” CD produced by NEHGS about 2000. Perhaps that is what Mrs Fiske refers to. It is loadable to a permanent file and could easily be put on-line from which corrections could be added and indexed (linked) in the same clever manner they are on that CD. I believe it is essentially a copy of the Torrey books behind the 7th floor desk at Newbury St. It has already been keyed and indexed.
    Also no mention of Sanborn’s Torrey 3 additions and corrections.
    The problem of researching recent corrections/ new info has been greatly eased by Hollick and by Great Migration Directory (a wonderful best sources list)
    Thanks usual you pick interesting subject to blog.

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