Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Bated Breath - Part 3a

You're probably thinking, "Why 3a"? Well, today I got the call that my remaining ordered microfilms had arrived for probate records and wills. Unfortunately, I will not be able to get to the local Family History Center until next Wednesday or Thursday to find out what is in them. Tomorrow is Canada Day. My wife is off the day after Canada Day. Then it is the weekend. And so on.

What I most want to find is the probate records for Samuel Halls. Will they be in the rolls that came in today? If they aren't is there anything else to do? What might I find in the records that would be interesting? Will Samuel's will be included in the probate records? I am on tenterhooks with the suspense.

Stay tuned for Part 3b coming next week

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Spelling, Transcription, and Phonetics

So you've decided to research your family tree. Congratulations. You figure you're all set. You know the names of your grandparents, and even the maiden name of your great grandmother. What could go wrong?

You type the name of your ancestor into the search box, hit enter and suddenly you realize it might not be quite that simple as you see the 15,000 hits generated. And this is the easy part. The hard part is finding your ancestor when the name has been misspelled.

So what are the problems you face searching for your surname. Well, consistency of spelling for one. If a name can be spelled multiple ways phonetically, then it will be, and the problem is exacerbated (that's my $10 word for the day) if you happen to have a foreign name. Another issue is simple misspellings because the immigration clerk was tired after a long day, the children are crying, the typewriters are pounding, and there was a thunderstorm banging away while the clrek was filling in the forms. Alternately the clerk couldn't spell terribly and only had the job because of family connections, or... I'm sure you get the spelling point. If you are looking at transcribed records that were originally hand written then you add a whole other layer for errors to happen, because the origianl clerk may have made a mistake, and then the transcriber writes what they think the original clerk wrote. Heaven help us if the transcription is done by one person and then typed into the database by another.

So what can you do to solve some of these issues? Soundex searches help, but soundex has some real issues for example Lee and Leigh both have different codes even though they are pronounced identically. For an excellent article on soundex issues go here.

Just to give you an idea of what can happen to a name that seems simple lets look at Halls. First we'll just do basic misspellings based on phonetics or dropping the "s":


Now we will move on to errors by clerks due to noise, or whatever:

Now my favourite, transcription errors from hand written originals:

I could go on, but I think you get the picture. In the second and third tables I have not bothered to remove the "s" from the last name, so you can effectively double the number of ways that the name Halls can be spelled incorrectly. In the examples above there are at least 100 ways to misspell/mistranscribe Halls, and the list is not exhaustive. I don't mean to get down on transcribers, they do a lot of hard work from sources that are very difficult to read for a number of reasons, but sometimes you have to wonder what drugs some transcribers were on.

You also run into the occasional problem where the database you are searching has the first name as the last name, and vice-versa.

You'd think that other than what is mentioned above, Halls isn't a bad name to try to track, most names will have similar issues with spelling and it is not terribly common. True, it is not common, but when the default practice of a search engine, even Google, is to treat the "s" on the last name like it isn't there, and then throw in every community center, church hall, residence hall, town hall, site that mentions a certain Christmas song, hall's with an apostrophe, and a certain brand of cough candy, you come up with approximately 33.5 million hits on Google.

It could be worse
. Smith gets 412 million hits on Google.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Bated Breath - Part 2

Well, the first three films (of eight) that I ordered came in to the local Family History Society. Two reels are hand written copies of the wills and letters of administration for Huron County from the early 1900's. I found information for John, James, Philip T., and Mary Ann Andrew Halls... and nothing for Samuel Snr. - again. The third reel is probate records, and it contained the material for Philip T Halls.

Philip appears to have died without a will. There is a letter of administration in the first two reels, and then a multipage probate document in the third reel. His wife Agnes gave the administration of the estate over to her brother. The major interest is the point that there is some sort of agreement between the brother and a judge where they appear to owe the judge several thousand dollars. I am not quite sure what is going on, not enough familiarity with probate.

The wills/letters are well written, and well microfilmed, but the writing is very difficult to read, so the transcription process is very slow. I will have to go back and get better copies for myself to make the transcription process easier.

So now I wait for the probate records for the same time period. What I really hope to find there is probate records for Samuel Halls Snr. The man lead a very private life. Or perhaps mysterious would be more accurate.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Bated Breath

Well, perhaps not bated breath, but definitely with some anticipation. I ordered microfilms of a number of wills about two weeks ago, and I am quite interested in the contents of them.

Most especially I want to see the will of Samuel Halls who died in 1906. He has always been something of a cipher, and only recently has something of his life started to become apparent. I discovered his obituary a few weeks ago, and it mentioned that he had been an observer for the British during the American Civil War. Somewhere out there I suspect there is a picture of him with other British observers.

The other wills are for Samuel's brothers, James and John, a nephew, and James' widow.

If nothing else genealogy teaches patience.

Thoughts on Sources

There are a lot of companies that you find on the web that offer to sell you old books, or other genealogical information. You may want to think twice before you buy any old books or access to indices to use as sources for genealogy.

For example, a major American source is The Brewster Genealogy. You can buy Volume 1 from Amazon for about $40.00. Or you could go to The Internet Archive, and
download a .pdf of the book for free. There are lots of other books that are useful for genealogy. For example The Compendium of History and Biography of North Dakota, or Commemorative Biographical Record of the County of York, Ontario.

In Canada a major source for Ontario is a series of County Atlases published between 1870 and 1880. Your local library may have the local atlas, but otherwise they can be hard to find. Try
The Canadian County Atlas Digital Project. There is also the Library and Archives of Canada which has a significant amount of searchable census data online. There is also Automated Genealogy for the 1851, 1901, 1906, and 1911 Canadian Censuses, including a cross reference tool based on names for 1901 and 1911.
which has maps digitized and a search for names too. If you want
If you are looking for BMD information from England you can use FreeBMD which has transcribed most of the entries. It doesn't give all the information you find on the actual certificate, but it allows you to search them easily, for free. There is also FreeREG, which is transcriptions of baptisms, marriages, and deaths from Parish Registers in England. It is not as large as FreeBMD, but it is growing, and more entries are added on a regular basis.

Google does not always search inside databases, for example states and provinces that have BMD information online. BMD information from these sources does not show up in your searches. Just remember, the certificates you may order will cost you, but the searches and basic information are free.

There is a lot available for free on the internet, and a little extra digging can save a lot of money. Here are some useful genealogical search tips

  1. Use quotation marks. That gives you an exact match on the name you are looking for, eg "john smith"
  2. Use minus sign to exclude a word or phrase
  3. Misspell names, either phonetically, by common hearing errors, e.g. Alva may become Alvin, Harry may be Harold or Henry, or by mistaken transcription e.g. Halls becomes Hallo, Hales, Kalls, Hollo, etc.
  4. Search for surname/first name not just first name/surname
    1. don't forget to use contractions or middle names too, e.g. saml for samuel.
  5. Don't forget online databases that Google doesn't search
    1. various national and provincial/state bmd indices
    2. cemetery databases such as Find-a-Grave, or Ontario Cemetery Finding Aid (OCFA)
    3. online national, or state/provincial archives
    4. Google News Archive - try the advanced search
    5. Local university archives
    6. Local genealogical and historical societies. Remember that the local university archives, genealogical and historical societies will often do limited research on specific simple search requests. That was how I got the picture of Samuel Pollard Halls.
The above isn't exhaustive, but it should be enough to get you started.