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  • The Wonderful World of Manuscripts

    Timothy G. X. Salls

    Published Date : March 10, 2004

    Since our founding in 1845, the New England Historic Genealogical Society has acquired a fantastic collection of resources to help genealogists research the history of their family. The NEHGS manuscript collection is one of the resources that patrons often have many questions about. What follows is an overview of the primary types of manuscripts we collect along with some examples of how they can be used to further your research.

    Account Books
    Account books are business records that contain the names of customers, dates of transaction, list of goods or services purchased, payment amount, and, in many cases, method of payment (items were often paid for by bartering goods or services). Although some of our account books have no indication of the merchant's name or the location of their business, many others do have this valuable information specifically written in or on the book. Knowing the location is important because these records can be used as evidence that the customer or merchant was living in a particular town during a particular year. An entry in an account book may also be the only record that exists for an individual, especially in areas where the vital statistics were either lost or poorly recorded. Thus, seventeenth and eighteenth century account books are particularly valuable since they can provide information where the vital records are lacking.

    Every now and then, an account book will include non-business information such as Samuel Sewall's "account of books lent" (Mss 514) or the register of births and deaths for the John and Ruth (Hale) Pearson family of Rowley, Massachusetts included in John Pearson's account book of 1736-1740 (Mss C 4963). An account book of Jason Newell includes a record of tuition for a Cumberland, Rhode Island school, circa 1811 (Mss C 4830). NEHGS also collects account books of corporate entities, such as Colonel William Bond's record for the 25th Continental Regiment (Mss C 4883). This account book lists the soldiers in the regiment and notes whether they have firearms, a bayonet, a gun mark, and a gun number. It also contains information concerning the pay of some officers. Was your ancestor a subscriber who donated money to fund the construction of the frigate USS Boston during 1798 and 1799? Did your ancestor purchase goods from Samuel Townsend, a merchant in Oyster Bay, New York, circa 1739-1775? Account books at NEHGS will provide the answer!

    Bible Records
    Bible records contain vital statistic information recorded at the same time or shortly after the actual birth, marriage, or death. As a result, this kind of manuscript can assist researchers by filling in gaps within the published vital records. This is why genealogists seek the title page along with the bible record - the date of publication allows the researcher to determine how close to the actual events the entries were written (with the assumption that contemporary accounts should be more accurate). Since families often took these heirlooms with them whenever they moved, bible records can sometimes help to locate relatives who "disappear." A bible record may also be accompanied by an assortment of items of interest to genealogists including photographs, obituaries, bookmarks, marriage certificates, report cards, handwritten genealogies, wills, etc. NEHGS has recently published transcriptions of a large portion of bible records in our collection on a CD-ROM titled Bible Records from the manuscript collections of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Linda Rupnow McGuire discusses this exciting release in detail in the Holiday 2001 edition of New England Ancestors.

    Church and Town Records
    Church and town records are often grouped together since they both contain vital statistic information. NEHGS has a very large collection of unpublished transcribed tombstone inscriptions from town cemeteries, family burial grounds, and various churches. These transcriptions were often done for the benefit of the entire community. In addition, our collection includes original and transcribed copies of church registers, which list baptisms (and sometimes the date of birth), marriages, deaths, and, more importantly, admissions. An admission record may reveal the first concrete date for an individual living in a community. Besides the vital records found in transcribed town record books, manuscript town records include items such as handwritten copies of local censuses or tax records, which are also valuable when figuring out who lived in a particular community during a specific year. Information from both town and church records forms a major part of the source material collected by Clarence Bowen for his book, The History of Woodstock, Connecticut (Plimpton Press, 1926-43), an example of a manuscript collection that focuses on the history of a specific town. Since copying errors and omissions do occur in published vital records, histories, and of course, genealogies, it is important to access the original record or an author's notes to verify whether questionable information was printed correctly. Additionally, a researcher's papers often contain more information than what ends up in their published works.

    Correspondence
    Correspondence can sometimes provide as much genealogical and historical information as a diary. Of course, many factors influence how much information can be gleaned from any particular collection of correspondence, including general subject matter (personal, business, military, etc.), how often the letters were written, number of authors, and how much detail is provided. Genealogical correspondence may consist of letters written between a genealogist and archivists, curators, town clerks, other genealogists, and/or individuals researching the same surname. The value of genealogical letters should be evident: if someone has already done the work, so much the better, right? At least as long as you credit their work and check their citations. In addition, previous researchers may have had access to sources and repositories that you didn't consider and you may also find additions or corrections to published works.

    Personal letters written between family members contain descriptions of their lives in their own words. Family members often discussed the births, marriages, and deaths of family members, friends, and others in their town. Although business letters usually lack vital statistic information often found in genealogical and personal correspondence, they are nevertheless valuable to genealogists since they document a major facet of a person's life. At the very least, the letterheads used by our ancestors on their business letters were often visually interesting and thus could serve not only as an example of the kind of work they did, but also as an interesting image to use in a genealogy.

    Diaries and Journals
    Diaries and journals are like time machines that remind us what life was like before such modern conveniences as computers, television, radio, automobiles, electricity and the like. They are perfect examples of a manuscript's ability to provide insight into the common day-to-day experiences of our ancestors that is so valuable for historians and genealogists. The genealogist's ideal situation would be a firsthand account by an ancestor in which the diary records not only their activities (business, membership in organizations, offices held, leisure and trips) but their emotions as well. These personal insights, which may include reactions to local and national events, can provide us with a window into the author's life. You will also want to check for diaries written by people living in the same area as your ancestor, as they might contain secondhand accounts concerning the ancestor. For more information and examples on the wealth of information diaries can provide, read Ralph Crandall's article "Diaries and Journals: An Often Neglected Genealogical Resource" (New England Ancestors, Summer 2000). Researcher should also peruse our online guide to the diaries in the NEHGS Special Collections Department.

    Family Registers
    Family registers compile birth, marriage, and death information pertaining to a particular family or families, usually entered by family members themselves. These records may be handwritten notes, a hand-drawn and colored register like a fraktur, written entries added to a preprinted form (such as those by Currier and Ives), or a printed broadside. Besides the vital statistic information these manuscripts provide, family registers sometimes provide interesting details into the cause of death of a family member, childhood illnesses, and even dowry information. These documents often contain examples of handwriting practice and favorite poems or psalms. Some have an aesthetic quality to them, as the colorful Isaac Ketcham family register depicted on the cover of the Winter 2001 edition of New England Ancestors vividly demonstrates. Many aspects of these records, including their wonderful folk art qualities, will be covered in a scholarly monograph that will be printed early next year called The Art of Family: Genealogical Artifacts in New England (NEHGS, 2001), edited by D. Brenton Simons and Peter Benes. This book will contain numerous illustrations of family registers from the manuscripts holdings of NEHGS as well as examples from the American Antiquarian Society, the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife, and private collections throughout the United States.

    Genealogies
    NEHGS has one of the premier collections of genealogical manuscripts in the country, and not surprisingly, they comprise the bulk of our manuscript collection. I have recently cataloged some typescript biographies (a genealogy of one?) complete with some tipped-in photographs, which are nice despite the difficult preservation issues they create. What a great legacy for the future to record not just when and where you were born but also a description of your education, places of employment, pets, the cars you've owned, memberships, where you've lived, and other details of your life that only you and your immediate family would know! Thankfully, even when the majority of people go through life as mere players who act their part and then are heard no more, genealogists have continued to make the effort to document members of their families in compiled genealogies. Although early handwritten genealogies like the Parson genealogy of 1743 are valuable since the author may have had access to records that might have been lost over time, genealogists must realize that today's standards of documentation and citation weren't established at that time. If you find that a manuscript genealogy contains dates that are questionable, keep in mind that you may also find valuable biographical data not available elsewhere.

    You never know what you will find when you ask to view a particular manuscript genealogy in the collection. You may find a modest handwritten record like the forty page Parsons genealogy or you might lose yourself in an extensive collection of notes, charts, indexes, and source citations as you face the prospect of 159 boxes of John Insley Coddington Papers before you! How and why manuscript collections are created is no mystery; researchers accumulate a large amount of paperwork in their quest for genealogical information. This includes correspondence, notes taken from published genealogies and histories, extracts, abstracts, transcriptions of government records, and much more. The compilers of the papers in our collection may also have had possession of original documents such as letters written by their ancestors, a diary, wills, deeds, photographs, or a family bible. If it was the intention of the genealogist to publish a book, there may be even more records - drafts, annotated copies, and so on. All of these unpublished documents a genealogist compiles as a by-product of their research are manuscripts.

    Graphics
    The graphics in our collection include photographs, silhouettes, and portraits. Although NEHGS focuses on acquiring photographs such as daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes and albumen prints, researchers will also find more modern prints. Photographs at NEHGS are scattered throughout our collections. The "scope note" (the brief description of the manuscript provided in the catalog record) and subject headings in a catalog record will indicate when a collection includes photographs or any other graphics. The finding aids (guides to the intellectual and physical arrangement of larger collections) found on each library floor include a list of photographs typically separated into portraits and landscapes. The lists are then arranged alphabetically by surname or place. Several collections of family papers at NEHGS include silhouettes, hand painted miniature portraits, or pen and ink sketches. NEHGS also keeps a few collections comprised entirely of photographs such as the Harriet Merryfield Forbes Collection of New England Gravestones. Patrons can even search in our library catalogs for the large painted portraits in the Society's fine art collection. For more information on other resources for family portraits see D. Brenton Simons' article "Finding Family Portraits: A Bibliography of Selected Sources" (New England Ancestors, Holiday 2000) and Maureen A. Taylor's "Photographs in Your Family History" (New England Ancestors, Holiday 2001).

    Four Cornerstones of the NEHGS Manuscript Collection
    Since a member of the Society recently expressed surprise that NEHGS would be interested in their research, it should be noted that our members donate approximately 70 to 80% of the material in our collection. This material falls into four general types: those that focus on a specific surname, on a specific geographical area, a specific ethnic group, or client research by a professional genealogist. Our collection also includes the records and papers of several family associations. Since many of our patrons are primarily concerned with gathering information on a specific family line, those collections that focus on an entire family are valuable because they meet the needs of multiple patrons. Sometimes an author will focus on a specific town including the families that lived there, as Fred Crowell did for his articles on New Englanders in Nova Scotia, for which we have the source material. Some genealogists are drawn instead to focus on a specific ethnic group. Rudi Ottery, for instance, compiled a large group of material on the Brotherton Indian tribe. The final type of manuscript collection found at NEHGS are the papers of genealogists hired to do research for clients. The unifying element of such collections is the genealogist, who often specializes in a particular area while their clients' needs vary greatly. Researchers will find more examples of the manuscript collections held by NEHGS by consulting our sample list of holdings . You may also search the manuscript collection by subject, author, or title.


    It is difficult to account for every single kind of manuscript that NEHGS has acquired over the past 156 years in such a short article. In addition to the examples outlined above, our collection also includes documents such as military commissions, wills, deeds, estate inventories, sermons, and much, much more. It is also difficult to account for every possible way manuscripts may be used to further your research. In fact, one of the challenges archivists face is that researchers are constantly using manuscripts in new ways; thus, our cataloging of manuscripts is always evolving to incorporate new research interests and methods. Yet, hopefully, even this short sampling of manuscript types illustrate why they are an important resource for genealogists. Ultimately, because of their contemporary recordings of vital statistic and biographical information, manuscripts are the primary source material that genealogists use to create and enhance the story of their family.

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