Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Dear Randy: Check Out This Town Clerk's Lament

I received an email from reader Karen recently, who forwarded a digital image from one of the FamilySearch record collections that she thought was interesting.  Here is what Karen told me:

"While researching the death of my 5th gr-grandfather Charles West who died in Southbridge, Massachusetts in 1842, I came across a commentary (you might even call it a "rant") by the Town Clerk at the bottom of the register page.  I know from your blog that you do a lot of research in Massachusetts, so I thought you might find these comments of interest.  It appears that the prior town clerk was less than fastidious in his work and the current clerk had his work cut out for him.

The record on Family Search for Charles West's death is here: and I've also attached the image itself so you don't need to navigate to the page.

I guess I'll have a little more perspective the next time I'm frustrated when I cannot find a birth, marriage or death record!  (Though, to be honest, I'll be no less frustrated!)"

Here is the image from the FamilySearch "Massachusetts, Deaths, 1841-1915" collection:

The note at the bottom of the page, for the Southbridge, Massachusetts death records for the year ending May 1, 1843, says:

"Sir. I am completely discouraged and out of patience trying to make a correct return.  Last year I returned 7 Births, no pains having been taken by my predecessor to collect them.  This year I have collected 58 which cannot be far from the exact number.  At any rate I have taken great pains having been to nearly every house in Town.  I have not been able to give names in every instance - 1st Because many have left town since the date of the Birth, 2nd Because parents have not named them & are not obliged to within six months.  In some I could only ascertain that there had been a birth whether male or female not known.  I have given notice calling attention to the  subject and perhaps & returned to me as the law requires.  Does not the law which requires me to send a "copy of my Record" also require you to furnish Blanks?  If I remain in office another year I shall in open Town Meeting give notice of such laws as may be existing at the time, & that they will be enforced without regard to standing or other circumstance (however inconvenient they may be & I may so that they cannot be more so).  

"I return the Marriages which have taken place in this town which you will see falls short of my "Copy of Records" - Individuals in Town go out to be Married nearly 1/3 go out of the State into Connecticut where the laws of our State have nothing to do with them.  Nothing like accuracy can be obtained from the border Towns while the laws permit this, as by going 6 miles from this Office a Couple may be married & no person in Town know for months, if at all that the ceremony had taken place, & if known nothing can be done  to assist correctness in Statistics.
                                                                       Respectfully &c  W.S. Knowlton"

There are several lessons here for genealogists searching in all localities:

*  Not every town clerk recorded every birth, marriage or death in their locality

*  Some town clerks were not as diligent as Mr. Knowlton to visit every household in town.

*  Not every child was immediately given a name after birth.

*  Some families moved before the town clerk could visit them

*  Some events took place in neighboring towns or states.

Obviously, all researchers need to understand that these types of problems are endemic to every kind of vital record recorded by a government official.  Granted, this was 1843, only two years after the State of Massachusetts required towns to record births, marriages and deaths and forward a copy of their town records to the State. Compliance was not perfect and town/county clerks may not have been diligent enough to record every vital event.  On the other hand, Massachusetts town clerks had been recording births, marriages and deaths in their town record books for over 200 years by 1843, so this should have been a routine activity by now, unless a town clerk had serious physical or mental problems.

When I read information like the above, I realize how fortunate we are to have any records for our ancestors birth, marriage or death at all.

Thank you to Karen for the excellent "catch" at the bottom of the page in this record collection, and for sharing it with me, and agreeing to let me publish it.

If you find funny or quirky things in record collections, and want to pass them along, I will be happy to publish them along with your, or my, pithy comments.

Copyright (c) 2014, Randall J. Seaver

1 comment:

Michigan Girl said...

Interesting post. Makes it all so real, doesn't it Randy? Lots of reasons we might not find those records we long for so much.