Thursday, March 7, 2013

Westminster, Massachusetts Town Records - What is Original?

I asked what I thought was a fairly simple question yesterday in my post, Sorting Out Primary and Secondary Information.  There are many comments with different opinions and conclusions, and I am thankful for every reader who commented.

One of the issues raised by several commenters was "Are the handwritten Westminster, Massachusetts town records original sources, or are they derivative sources?"

Reader/commenter Geolover noted that "The front cover of the book entitles it 'Births, Deaths and Intentions' and has a notation, "bought 1786." and "...This record book is part of a collection of microfilms of selected documents. The collection was not made as part of an effort to microfilm ~all~ pertinent documents. A check of the Massachusetts State Library website or query to the Town Clerk might indicate what records for this period actually exist."

That piqued my interest, so I went looking for exactly what was included in the "Massachusetts , town and vital Records, 1620-1988" on for Westminster, Massachusetts.  On the database search page, I selected Westminster from the dropdown list and saw:

The different Titles for Westminster include:

*  Births, Marriages and Deaths

*  Court Records, with Births, Marriages and Deaths

*  District and Town Meeting Minutes, Town and Church Records, with Births, Marriages and Deaths

*  Perambulation and Fence Records, with Births, Marriages and Deaths

*  Town Records, Appraisals, Warnings and Animal Ownership, with Births, Marriages and Deaths

Within each one of those elements for one town in this large database, there are often several different "books" or "manuscripts."  For instance, here is the first page (of 8 pages!) - image 3 in the "book" - of the list of what is included in the Births, Marriages and Deaths element:

After perusing these eight pages of description, I conclude that:

*  The first town clerk's book that had birth, marriage and death records was the second "book" listed on the list above, titled "Westminster Town Records, 1738-1803."  These are handwritten records, recorded as information was provided to the town clerk, and the births were recorded in family groups.  They planned ahead (until the page was filled, then they added families later in the book).

*  The second town clerk's book that had birth, marriage and death records was the third "book" listed on the list above, titled "Westminster Births, Marriages, Deaths, 1738-1845."  Within this "book," are sections for year ranges, mainly using family groups to record the birth and death information.  The year ranges overlap, so that not all records for a particular year are consecutive.  The records are handwritten, and are not in a uniform hand or ink quality.  It is evident that the records for families recorded in the first book above before 1786 were recorded again in this second book.  However, I believe that the birth and death records recorded after, say, 1786 are the first recorded records of the birth, marriage and death events.

A visit to the Massachusetts State Library website revealed that the only vital records information they have for Westminster is, apparently, the published "tan" book for Westminster Vital Records to the Year 1849.  The Westminster town clerk's office web page does not list specific records that they have available.

The Family History Library Catalog for Westminster, Massachusetts has several collections, which seem to match the five Titles listed above, including the listing for Westminster (Massachusetts) Vital Records, 1738-1910 on FHL US/CAN microfilm 2313482, which is the filming of the Births, Marriages and Deaths element in the list above.

I haven't queried the Westminster town clerk, so I can't say with 100% confidence that the Ancestry collection of Westminster, Mass. town records,  obtained from the Jay Holbrook collection of microfiche of the different records, is "complete," but it looks pretty complete to me.  There are probably not any other historical Westminster town clerk records available.

I reviewed the town records for about 20 other Massachusetts towns, and only a few of the ones I saw listed births by family unit in the pre-1840 records.  Most recorded them in a serial list by date, noting the child's name and parents names.  So, Westminster is not unique in that regard.  I prefer to think of that method as smart - the records are much easier to find!

My conclusion is that for birth, marriage and death records in Westminster after 1786 - like my Isaac Seaver birth in 1823 - the first recordings of the events are in the third "book" in the Births, Marriages and Deaths "element."  They are "Original Source" records per the BCG definition.   Before 1786, the first recordings are in the second "book" in the Births, Marriages and Deaths "element" and therefore those  are "Original Source" records.  The records before 1786 in the third "book" are transcriptions, so they are "Derivative Source" records.

The above conclusion does not discuss whether the entries in these books are "Primary Information" or "Secondary Information," of course.  That was the discussion in my earlier post.

These discussions are good to have because every researcher needs to understand what records are available, when and how they were created, and where they can be found.  The other recordings of Isaac Seaver's birth in the Westminster Vital Records book and the Birth Certificate obtained from the town relied on the town clerk record - the "Original Source."  I had reviewed these Westminster vital records on the FHL microfilm years ago, and now they are available on as part of a very large collection, and are name indexed.

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copyright (c) 2013, Randall J. Seaver


Sonja Hunter said...

I never realized how important it was to understand how certain records were created until I read how early Michigan birth records (1867-1906) were collected. Now I know why I never found birth records for certain people in my tree I have every reason to believe were born in the state. The reason? Birth and death information was collected once a year by assessors who were supposed to go through their districts asking people for it. It is easy to see how information could fall through the cracks under the best of circumstances and how faulty the information could be when the assessors didn't take their jobs seriously. I actually blogged about it since I figured I wasn't the only one who didn't know about it.

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