Moving Beyond Published Abstracts

For years, genealogists have depended on published abstracts of records to gather data they would otherwise have difficulty accessing. As we get greater access to digitized original records, however, the weaknesses of abstracts are becoming more apparent. Take, for example, the first entry in Will Records of Montgomery County, Kentucky, 1796–1821:

Will Book A

Page 1 Will of Elias Lansom

My daughter, Mary Allison

My wife, Elizabeth and David Wilcox, Exe.

My grandson, Samuel Allison

Written: 6 October 1796

Witnesses: Thomas Almond and Robert Wood

Probated: 3 May 1797[1]

Examining this abstract, we might extract several pieces of data that we can then use to further our research:

  • Elias Lansom made a will
  • that will was made 6 October 1796
  • that will was probated 3 May 1797
  • that will was made in Montgomery County, Kentucky
  • Elias Lansom had a daughter Mary Lansom
  • daughter Mary Lansom married —?— Allison
  • Elias Lansom had a wife Elizabeth (—?—) Lansom
  • Mary (Lansom) Allison had a son Samuel Allison
  • Elias Lansom was associated with executor David Wilcox
  • Elias Lansom was associated with witness Thomas Almond
  • Elias Lansom was associated with witness Robert Wood
  • Associates presumed to be of Montgomery County

Now let’s compare the data given in the abstract to the actual record, a will recorded in a will book.[2] How many differences can you find?

(click to enlarge for a clearer image)

Seeing an image of the original, we can make a number of critical corrections and additions to our list of data points.

  • Elias Lansom Elijah Sansom made a will
  • that will was made 6 October 1796
  • Thomas Almond proved the will 2 May 1797
  • Robert Wood further proved the will 4 July 1797
  • that will was made in Montgomery Clark County, Kentucky
  • Elijah Sansom signed with an X
  • Elijah Sansom had a daughter Mary Lansom Sansom
  • daughter Mary Sansom married —?— Allison Almon
  • Elijah Sansom had a wife Elizabeth (—?—) Sansom
  • Mary (Sansom) Almon had a son Samuel Allison Almon
  • Elijah Sansom was associated with executor David Wilcox
  • Elijah Sansom was associated with witness Thomas Almond
  • Associates presumed to be of Montgomery Clark County

That’s a lot of improved data to work with. Perhaps the most fundamental points are that we have an entirely different testator and family, and that we now see a possible (likely?) marriage between witness Thomas Almond and daughter Mary (Sansom) Almon. We also see that further research for years preceding Elijah’s death should include records in Clark County, Kentucky.

None of this is to disparage anyone’s work. Human error is, unfortunately, an inescapable part of being human. This just happens to be one example of the human error we have to expect from time to time. The compiler of these abstracts, Elizabeth Prather Ellsberry, has helped thousands of genealogists with her numerous works, reportedly publishing more than one million names throughout her years of abstracting.[3] That kind of dedication and productivity deserves nothing but our praise and thanks.

The value of published abstracts can’t be overstated, but neither can the need for caution in working with them. Insofar as is possible, use those abstracts primarily as an index. Then find and read the original sources yourself. It’s rare that this fundamental practice will fail to enhance your research.

 

[1] Elizabeth Prather Ellsberry, Will Records of Montgomery County, Kentucky, 1796–1821 (Chillicothe, Mo.: the author, 1960s?), 3. This book of abstracts is a photocopied typescript available at more than thirty libraries across the country. It is digitized at FamilySearch for viewing at Family History Centers and at Ancestry (Kentucky, Wills and Probate Records, 1774–1989 > Montgomery > Will Records, 1796–1821).

[2] Will Book A, 1797–1812, 1–2, Montgomery County Clerk’s Office, Montgomery County, Kentucky (FHL #252,360); image available at FamilySearch.

[3] Ellsberry Publications, Pipes Genealogy Page (http://www.pipesfamily.com/elsbery.htm) : 11 June 2020.

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