When you discover a lengthy file for an ancestor, how do you deal with the many pages it may contain and the information it holds? Do you transcribe it? Create an abstract? What if you can’t read some of the handwriting? Four tips can get you started in working with original documents.
Transcription or Abstract – What’s the Difference?
You may have heard the terms abstract or transcription in regards to genealogy and wondered about the difference. Both are very useful when working with something like a probate file, land application file, or pension file. These collections often contain multiple pages of handwritten documents. A nugget of information like a birth, marriage, or death date may be buried deep within the file but if you don’t transcribe every bit of the file, you might miss it.
This may seem like pointless work – why not just skim the document for those useful facts? In reality, our eye often jumps over details that may seem unimportant, but are key to the analysis. We don’t want to return to that file of original documents every time we want to review the information. How much better it would be to have a complete transcription to read through – then compare to the original if needed.
In contrast to a transcription where every bit of writing on a document is recorded, an abstract takes the key points from the document and records those. You may have viewed a book of will abstracts where only the heirs and relationships were noted. The danger in relying on an abstract in your research is missing out on other pieces of useful information that could be key in making connections such as a land description. Abstracts will vary in completeness, so should always be used as a finding aid for the original source.
I recommend doing a complete transcription of a document or document file, then creating an abstract in your research log or research notes of the key points. If you use a Google Doc for the transcription, a URL will be created and that can be listed in the research log for easy access. The abstract could be used later in a research report or summary and the transcription attached as an appendix.
Once you’ve completed the transcription, you have a record that can be referenced multiple times as you correlate the information about your ancestor. You’ll also be able to accurately cite any detail you pull from the document.
Tips for Transcribing a Document
Four tips will help you hone your skills in transcription. The more you practice, the easier it will become to read the handwriting. I recently found a Texas land entry file for my ancestor, William Henderson Shults. This seventeen page file is available on the Texas General Land Office website and is digitized in color. I’ll use it to illustrate each transcription tip.
Tip 1: Create a Source Citation and add a Link to the Document
When you create your Google Doc, put the link and source citation directly at the top of the document. The transcription should be digitally filed in your ancestor’s document file along with an image or PDF of the original. It may be important to return to the website hosting the document, so having the citation as well as the link will be very useful in future research. The screenshot below shows the beginning of my transcription.
Tip 2: Record Everything
Be sure to transcribe every file number, mark, and word, as well as notes about the condition of the document or unrecognizable handwriting. Use brackets [ ] for any explanatory notes you add or to show a word that you can’t read. For instance you could write [—ida—] if the word “affidavit” was illegible. When you come back to that part of the transcription, you may be able to recognize the word by putting it in context of the rest of the document.
Preserve any text crossing-out by using the “Strikethrough” tool. Find this in Google Docs under Format > Text > Strikethrough. Other text tools are Superscript and Subscript that might be needed in transcribing.
In the following screenshot, I decided to use text color to show the various colors on the original. The colors are clues to the contents of the land file and give a summary by date. The brown writing was the original land patent application filed on 22 October 1878. The dark red reflects additional field notes of 13 September 1880. In bright red is the reference to the proof of settlement statement by two witnesses, dated 23 March 1881. The final documents noted in dark brown are an affidavit of ownership by two men who purchased this land and desired their own patent – dated 27 July 1905. Note that this is twenty-four years after the original patent was granted to William Henderson Shults.
Tip 3: Add Headings, Descriptions, and Images
To make it easier to compare my transcription to the actual image, I decided to take a screen shot of the image I was transcribing and put it below the heading and transcription. I preserved the image numbers from the original digital file for the heading and added a description to make it easier to find specific documents within the file. By using headings under the “Normal text” tab of Google Docs, an outline of the images in the file was automatically created.
The following screenshot shows the outline open on the left (it can be closed if desired) and the selected heading in blue on the right.
Tip 4: Review the Transcription
By the time you’ve worked through an entire document or file you’ve likely encountered the same names, dates, places, etc. written repeatedly. What might have been illegible at the beginning may have been repeated later in the document, this time more readable. You’ll also have a better feeling for the purpose of the document and words that didn’t make sense will suddenly become clear.
In William Henderson Shults’s Texas land file, the land measurement “varas” was written repeatedly as “vs.” This Spanish term came from the land measures used when Texas was under the rule of Spain and then Mexico. A vara equals 2.78 feet, about 33 inches. As I was transcribing, I was confused for a moment until I realized the “vs” used repeatedly stood for varas.
If you come upon an archaic or unfamiliar term, you may need to do additional research to transcribe it correctly. As your understanding grows, you’ll be able to better use the information found within the document. Better still, once the transcription is completed, you’ll likely have several new avenues of research for your ancestor.
As I reviewed the Shults land file, I noted several questions to explore:
When was the land sold to the new owners requesting a patent in 1904?
What does the land look like now?
Who were the neighbors listed on the survey map of 1880 and what was their relationship to William Henderson Shults?
What is the history of the railroad abbreviated as BBB &C RR used in the field notes?
Who were the witnesses who testified that William had “settled upon and cultivated as a homestead the land?”
What was the Land Act of 24 March 1871 that William applied for his patent under?
Once you’ve reviewed your transcription and made a list of questions, you can start a new research project and add to your knowledge of the ancestor. Often in this step, I discover the clue to additional research that solves a brickwall problem. Taking the time to do a full transcription is worth every minute!
Best of luck in all your genealogical endeavors!
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Thanks for the note!