Strategy 3: Recognize What Is an Original and What Is a Copy


We may never see some of the original documents from earlier times, either in courthouses, on microfilm, or on digitized microfilm images. Here are some examples:

  • Original U.S. federal census population schedules were completed by an enumerator, and then copied for submission to the state or federal government. The enumerators for the 1870 census were Assistant Federal Marshalls. They created an original, and thy then transcribed a copy of the census schedules for the state government. The state then made a copy and submitted it to the federal government. This second transcription is what has been microfilmed and later digitized. We are therefore looking at a document into which errors may have been introduced by several people.
  • An original marriage license was issued to the groom by a county clerk and was completed by the officiant at the time the wedding ceremony occurred. The license was then returned to the clerk for copying into the county marriage book and entry into the groom and bride indexes. The original was returned to the couple. The clerk may have made transcription errors.
  • A clerk entered deeds into the grantor and grantee indexes and then transcribed the document into the county deed book. The original was returned to the grantee. The clerk may have made a transcription error when transcribing the deed.
  • An original will was indexed and transcribed by a clerk into the county will book. An entry was made in the probate court minutes for later reference by the judge. The original will may have been given to the executor/executrix/administrator of the estate or a legal representative, or it may have been filed in a probate packet. However, the clerk may have made a transcription error as he copied the will.

It is important that we recognize the difference between what is the original document and what is a copy. The early clerks may have introduced spelling and punctuation errors at the time the documents were transcribed by hand. Later documents in the county files may have been carbon copies or photocopies of the original and may therefore be deemed more reliable.

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