Don’t rely on transcriptions of documents for your research. Study the original and you may find loads of information.

Last week, I was in a bit of a hurry. Researching on the fly is never a good idea. One doesn’t do one’s best work that way.

What was I doing wrong? Failing to study a document for myself when conducting research.

Pretend you are utilizing an online database such as FamilySearch or Ancestry to find the next great record from the life of an ancestor. Or envision being at a county courthouse looking at original records (always the better option if at all possible). You stumble across a new piece of evidence that you’ve never seen before. Say it’s a Last Will and Testament.

Last week, I conducted a search on Ancestry for the will of Neill Ray, my 3rd great grandfather. He passed away in 1808 in Robeson, North Carolina.

In the page of search results, this is what one sees.ray_neill_documents_will_robeson_nc_1808

The record at the top of the list, for a Neill Ray who died in North Carolina in about 1808, is the one I am interested in looking at.

If I click on the listing, this is what appears:


On this listing are several items. To the left, the digitized microfilm copy of the original will is there waiting to be opened and studied. Also on this same page is a transcription of what someone, likely a volunteer not related to the person whose record they are transcribing (and thus may not be aware of such things as the correct spelling of the person’s surname), has chosen to transcribe of what’s on the document.

I have two choices at this point. I can trust the work of the transcriptionist to provide both a detailed and accurate write-up of the information enclosed, or I can open the document and study it for myself.

Last week, I failed to open the online digital copy of the document I was studying and read it. When I went back and re-looked at my work, I realized how much I had missed by doing so.

(Allow me to state again: Whenever possible, obtain the original document to study. If it is not available, then work with as close of a version of the original as possible.)

Check out these examples of the problems caused by not reading the document for myself.

Example 1:

The photo below shows you what the transcriptionist provided about this tax document for James Morrison Broadfield:

Name: J M Broadfield. Year: 1852. District: District 368. District Number: 368. Place: Putnam, Georgia, USA


That’s bare minimum information!

Now, if I had taken the time to open the online file and study the document itself, I would have found the information below. The list below of valuable data is clearly more than what was provided by the transcriptionist. By relying solely on the information provided above, I would have missed learning about his financial situation, his ownership of slaves as well as their value, and his debts. (Note: All information within brackets are my own notations.)

Name: J M Broadfield. Year: 1852. Militia District: District 368. Militia District Number: 368. County: Putnam. Polls: 1. Number of Persons Subject to Military Duty: 1. Amount of Money and Solvent Debts of All Kinds: $160. Number of Slaves: 16. Aggregate Value of Slaves: $10,000 [slave information may be attributable to another person on the tax digest; lines are poorly laid out on the document and it is difficult to follow. This information may go to a W. H. Branham on the line above]. 


Example 2: Here’s a more extreme example.

This is the 1834 property tax census for Malon Monk in Lowndes county, Georgia.


The information provided by the transcriptionist is shown below in italics. Like the previous example, what is supplied is quite minimal.

Name: Malon Monk. Year: 1834. District: Captain Caswell. Place: Lowndes, Georgia, USA

Now, if I open the digital file and start evaluating it for myself, look below at what there is to learn! Yes, all of the data within these four+ paragraphs is included in the document (excluding my notes in brackets).

It’s pretty incredible, isn’t it?

District: Capt. Caswells District. Name: Malon Monk. Polls: 1. Slaves: [non-listed]. P Land: 830 [could stand for “Pine Land,” “Prime Land,” “Pasture Land,” or “Pasture Land”; most likely “Pine Land” as earlier tax records for this county use the full term as a heading]. O+H Land: [left blank; likely stands for “Oak and Hardwood” Land]. Qlty: [left blank; likely stands for “Quality” of the acres; 1st, 2nd, and 3rd quality land was taxed at higher rates]. Counties: Lowndes [in South Georgia]. Section: [left blank]; District: 9; Numbers: 466, 469; Grants: [left blank]; Waters: Little River; Dollars: [information is cut off].

Name: Malon Monk; Polls: [left blank]; Slaves: [left blank]; P Land: [left blank]; O+H Land: 40 [The 40 and 160 acre lots are from the 1832 land lotteries in North Georgia—an early 19th century system of land distribution– and these are hardwood lots. Lowndes county, located in southern Georgia would be mostly pine land]. Qlty: 2; Counties: Cherokee [Cherokee county is much further north than Lowndes county, where Malon also indicates owning farm land. In 1832, a number of residents of Lowndes county were winners in the Land Lottery of Georgia, receiving property in the Cherokee Indian Territory. Though Malon was not one of 36 winners, his orphan sister, Jemimah Monk, was a winner of land in the sixth district. Somehow that land may have become Malons, or he was farming it and paying the property taxes for her.] Section: 3; District: 2; Numbers: 1124; Grants: [left blank]; Waters: Little River [This body of water flows into the Withlacoochee River at the present-day Lowndes county and Brooks county lines. In 1834 it was the Lowndes and Thomas county line. Dollars: [information is cut off]

Name: Malon Monk; [all column entries left blank are being left off]; O+H Land: 160; Qlty: 3 [5?]; Counties: Cherokee; Section: 1; District: 4; Numbers: 42; Waters: Little River

Name: Malon Monk; O+H Land: 35; Qlty: 3 [5?]; Counties: Cherokee; Section: 2; District: 1; Numbers: 42; Waters: Little River

Neighbors also found on this census sheet of interest: Malichi Monk (Malon’s brother); James Edmondson; Nancy Parrish – administrator of the estate of Henry Parrish (her father in law). These are ancestors as well.

Simply by opening this tax record I gain a wealth of information about Malon, everything from a lack of slave ownership, to approximately where his land is located, to the number of acres farmed as well as its production quality, to the names of some of his neighbors (who happen to confirm family relationships).

So, do your own research. Find the closest version of the original document possible– and study it. You may be amazed at what you find.

ADDENDUM PER 26 NOV 2016: Jennifer Lindsey Carbajal, my new Facebook friend, provided me the following information regarding the Property Tax Census above. Thank you, Jennifer, for sharing your knowledge!

“Having read many Property Tax Census from Lowndes and Berrien Counties, I can tell you that Polls is for white males old enough to vote and sometimes long-term land owners, not renters. Description of Timber on the land was important so it was listed: Pine, Hickory &Oak, Qty = Quantity, of course, having more than one that would total to a combined figure. Counties, Section, District, (Lot) Numbers are all very good information of what land and where it’s owned to pay taxes on. Your ancestors could easily have ownership of multiple properties of land is many counties by winning other land drawings or buying them, heirs to property or being executors of a will, or gifts from family or friends. Grants/Grantor(s) gives you the name of the person your relative acquired the land from. Possibly a friend, a banker, or law firm. Search further more into wills/probate/property records for more details. Water, the body of water on or near the property of the landowner, be it a river or a lake. Dollars is simply the total value of the timber on the land.

And yes “do” stands for ditto, so that we would all know the difference between one man vs. another man’s land especially if he had a lot to count and record. You can see the difference marked in same households of relatives, example father and sons, maybe between brothers.”


  1. Kathy A Dupree

    There is another good reason to read the original image, or at the least, the image provided by Ancestry, Fold3 etc. Oftentimes these images are attached to the family tree and, isn’t it important to understand what is attached to your profiles?

    1. Julie (Post author)

      You are so right!


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