Monday, October 17, 2011

Playing Dominos: the Illumination of the Non-Authoritative


Indexes, abstracts, and transcriptions have their places in research. I learned something new about that last week in Salt Lake City. There a respected New England researcher and writer helped me with my transcription of the will and inventory from the estate of Gov. Thomas Welles of Connecticut.

The governor wrote his own will. For many years he was also secretary of the General Court, that is, the colonial legislature of Connecticut. The colony’s Fundamental Orders are in his handwriting. It is consistent in its presentation. Each letter form is unique. This would be absolutely wonderful if not for the fact that the governor’s handwriting was old-fashioned for his time. I’ve found that headaches can ensue when I deal with the written hand of either Thomas Welles or Matthew Grant, great record-keepers but old-school in handwriting style.

The governor’s estate file is on microfilm, but the documents in the file are negative photostats.[1] The other files filmed that day appear to contain original documents, so this was a conundrum for me originally. I used every trick in the book to create the most legible photocopy possible but I was still missing quite a few words.

Apparently many decades ago, staff members at the Connecticut State Library pulled the original estate documents of several famous people and put them into two flat files. I imagine that they could then be monitored more easily. I’ve been working on a book on the governor’s descendants for ten years now, but only last fall learned about the flat files. I thus went to Salt Lake City armed with photographs of several original wills and other documents from that period in Hartford. This is why I love my smartphone. I could pull up those wills and expand the photograph until each word could be read separately.

The governor’s will has been transcribed by others before me. The version most widely available is by Charles William Manwaring in his abstracts of the probate court record books to 1750.[2] The inventory had not been fully explored in this way.

The copy of the will and inventory in the probate court record book were more readable, but the inventory omitted the structure that showed the rooms. This makes sense, doesn’t it? The clerk was fitting as much as he could into the book’s space whereas the appraisers had a full sheet of paper. The probate court clerk in 1660 was familiar with the older style of handwriting than I was and therefore could act as my interpreter.

On the third floor of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Bob Anderson tutored me. We had my photograph of the original inventory (written in haste and somewhat sloppily by John Cotton), his photocopy of the record book copy (with a huge scratch obliterating one row of writing), and the library’s online access to the Oxford English Dictionary, I learned to figure out how 17th century words were used. What I thought was a silk rug? Now it’s a list rug with a footnote that a list was a border. The linen[?] cupboard that confused me (I thought they would have called it a linen press) is now a livery cupboard. Although the O.E.D. admits that the word today is used to denote uniforms, in the 17th century livery was also used to describe food and drink. That cupboard stored comestibles which is perhaps why it also stored the beer bowl, wine cup and silver spoons.

It is like a line of dominoes standing on their edges. Push the first down and they all fall down in order. We have the governor’s original handwriting set into a newer hand by the court clerk. Then we have Manwaring reading a book written in one clerk’s hand. By comparing either one of those transcriptions back against the original, I can assess how much I agree and how much I need to learn.

Mills cautions us to take into account the skill of the creator.[4] In this case, I learned to piggyback my understanding on the skills of earlier transcribers. 

We apply the term “genealogy” to families, but Foucault also applied it to the development of ideas.[3] Others have applied the term to the development of derivative documents from original documents. We often stop at the thought that derivative documents don't have the authority of the original. They don’t, of course, but they can sometimes be illuminating.


[1] State of Connecticut, estate case files, Hartford Probate District Court, file no. 5860, Thomas Welles (1659/60); FHL microfilm 1,022,268.
[2] Charles William Manwaring, A Digest of Early Connecticut Probate Records, 3 volumes (Hartford, R.S. Peck & Co., 1904-1906); governor’s estate 1:161-163.
[3] Johanna Oksala, How to Read Foucault (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008), 45-54.
[4] Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007), 33.

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