In-depth Record Analysis: An Example from National Genealogical Society Quarterly

Most of us have probably encountered a situation where a record seems unusual. We may be tempted to overlook the problem, accept the information, and move on to other research. When George Findlen found duplicate entries in Catholic church records for what seemed to be the same baptism, marriage, and death, he didn’t just accept them and move forward. He continued to dig to try to make sense of the double entries. He looked not only at the records themselves, but at canon law, oral and local history, and additional sources.

In the three cases discussed in his 2012 article in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ), “Resolving Duplicate Roman Catholic Parish Register Entries: French Canadian Examples,”[1] he explains the likely reasons for the repetition and determines the correct information regarding dates and places. Whether or not we have French Canadian Catholic ancestors, Findlen’s explanations serve as strong examples of the type of analysis we should do when we encounter problematic records.

Findlen’s questions were raised as he used published abstracts of Catholic parish registers. In genealogical research, an abstract is a shortened version of a record. Abstractors eliminate unnecessary wording and keep the important details. Abstracts are helpful, for they are usually indexed and often easier to read than original records, but wise researchers go a step further. They look at the original records, knowing that information can be incorrectly abstracted and that some compilers omit important details. Abstracts do not replace original records, but serve to simplify access to the originals.

In the three examples covered in this article, the original records include information that was omitted from the abstract. The baptismal and marriage records have marginal notations not carried over to the abstracted versions, and the original death-related records differentiate between funeral and burial—a fact overlooked by the abstractor. Had Findlen not pursued the original records, those added details would have been lost to him.

Examining the original records allowed Findlen to gather contextual clues, such as the sequence of the entries and handwriting. Evaluating the handwriting enabled him to determine the number of people making entries in the registers at the same time. Observing that some baptismal records were in chronological order and others were not suggested to the author that the regular priest was away at certain periods and that the responsibilities were covered by another priest during those times. Inspecting the original marriage records revealed that one seemed to be added later. It was recorded at the end of that year’s marriages in a blank part of a page, and it carried the initials of a priest who did not serve in the parish until nearly fifty years after the event.

Armed with full details and contextual clues, the author consulted additional sources. Catholic canon law and a procedure manual for the area’s priests state rules and responsibilities. Parish and local histories add data about the parishes and communities. Deeds, vital records, an obituary, eyewitness accounts, and oral history provide supplemental evidence about the events and the people involved. Findlen considered all of these elements as he worked to make sense of the seemingly redundant records.

As a result of his thorough analysis, Findlen was able to identify in which of the churches the baptism and marriage actually occurred, and he confirmed that the duplicate records related to one woman’s death actually referred to her funeral mass in one parish and burial in another.

What can this article teach us?

  • We learn to think about what we see. The article illustrates how an experienced researcher chose to question the records rather than just accept them. It shows us how he worked diligently to explain the duplication and to determine the facts surrounding the reported events.
  • We learn about the variable quality of sources. The article demonstrates some of the problems that may arise by relying solely on published abstracts instead of consulting original records.
  • We learn about reasoning. The article reveals the author’s thought process as he systematically gathered and analyzed information and worked towards his conclusions.
  • We learn about new sources. The article includes references to commonly used sources, such as church records and deeds, but the research also involves some that are not as frequently consulted, such as a procedure manual. Even if we have no need for those specific items in our own research, the author makes us aware of the existence of such sources, motivating us to pursue similar ones in our own projects.

During research we are bound to encounter problematic records and information. When that happens, each of us must listen to that voice inside that urges us to investigate and question. Findlen’s article shows us the way. It illustrates that conducting research isn’t just about finding records, but about making sense of them.

[1] George L. Findlen, “Resolving Duplicate Roman Catholic Parish Register Entries: French Canadian Examples,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 100 (December 2012): 267–78; image copy, National Genealogical Society, NGSQ Archives (http://www.ngsgenealogy.org/galleries/ngsq/NGSQ100n4_text_web.pdf : accessed 20 October 2016). NGSQ Archives is accessible only by members of the Society. The most recent issue of the journal includes another article by Findlen touching on the same subject (“Conflicting Burial Entries in Catholic Parish Registers,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 104 [September 2016]: 229–32).

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