March 5, 2012

Everyone Makes Mistakes: Why You Should Review Your Research Notes

A few days ago I decided to have another look at some census records I obtained many years ago for my Peer family in Pennsylvania. I wanted to verify what I had for the 1830 census which I'd obtained when those records first came online.

I headed for to search for Edward P*er (to pick up variants of Peer surname) in Pennsylvania in 1830. A very nice index transcription popped up.

I was quite puzzled because the indexed notes did not match what I had copied a few years ago. But perhaps I'd goofed?

One discrepancy which leapt off the page was that the Ancestry index showed a total of 4 in Edward's household - including free white, slaves and free coloured. But my notes showed that I had more people in Edward's household  which also consisted of slaves and free colored. Here is what I had in my notes:

1 female 56-100
1 female 24-36
Free Coloured:
1 female 56-100
1 female 26-56
1 female 24-36

Not only did I have 9 people total (instead of Ancestry's 4) I also has 5 slaves and free colored while Ancestry had zero.

I decided to check the online image. Edward was listed on line 21 of the image page and sure enough there were only 4 people shown as living in his household. But a check of the column headings top of the image page revealed that I was only viewing the section on White Males and Females! There were no column headings for Slaves or Free Colored.

Clicking on the right facing arrow took me to the second page and sure enough there were the headings for Slaves and Free Colored. I was feeling pretty smug because I saw that indeed there were vertical marks in the columns I'd previously noted. I figured had omitted indexing that second page.

Then I checked for my 3rd great grandfather Levi Peer. I'd noted previously that he owned one male slave but that didn't show up in Ancestry's indexed entry. Checking the image and going to the second page showed that there was indeed a mark in the column Slaves of 100 and upwards. That seemed odd. Who would own a slave that was over 100 years old??!!

And why hadn't that fact jumped out at me the first time I saw it? Warning bells were going off so I took a closer look at that second page. And that's when I noticed that the vertical marks were slanting backwards instead of forward as they were on the page with individual's names.

And others on the page had marks in that column labelled Slaves of 100 and upwards. Something was definitely wrong but I didn't figure it out until I looked closely at the total numbers in each column on page 2. The numbers were backwards. It was a slap my forehead in disbelief moment. I was looking at bleed-through from the next page! The strokes I saw in each column on page 2 had nothing to do with the people on the previous page.

So all these years I was wrong. My ancestor Levi Peer did not own slaves in 1830 in Pennsylvania. I was very happy to learn this but why oh why had I not been more careful when I first saw this record? I pride myself on being detail-oriented and cautious but I goofed that time (and probably other times!)

So remember that it pays to go back and scrutinize your older research. You never know what clue you might have missed or even where you may have erred in interpreting the data.  I'm so happy I decided to review those 1830 census records for my guys in Pennsylvania.

Next I'm off to review my findings for 1820!


PalmsRV said...

Good catch on your part!

Kay said...

WOW! Hadn't even thought of bleed-through! Thanks for a great tip!

Shelley said...

I bet it would have been obvious if you saw the original census page. A great warning about the caution needed when using any sort of copy!