Collecting published accounts: Part Five

Alicia Crane WilliamsSee the previous chapters in the series here, here, here, and here.

Published versions of vital records (in print or digital) for early New England families are plentiful. Between,, and, you can search the published volumes of “Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850”; Holbrook’s “Massachusetts Town Records 1620-1988,” which includes images from some original records; the Barbour collection of “Connecticut Vital Records to 1870”; Arnold’s “Rhode Island Vital Records, 1636-1930”; “Vermont Vital Records 1720-1908”; “New Hampshire records 1654-1949”; “Maine records 1620-1922”; and many more. There is no excuse these days for not checking an early New England vital record.

True or false? If you find a source that refers to an event from a published vital record, you can rest assured that all proper protocol has been followed, that the record has been copied correctly, that no conflicting records exist, and that you don’t need to actually look at the records yourself.

False, and it only takes a little exposure to backtracking vital records for you to realize how complicated verifying accounts can be when a transcription published in the The New England Historical and Genealogical Register in 1878 differs from the transcription published in the Massachusetts Vital Records Through 1850 volume published in 1910, which differs from the nineteenth century copy in “Massachusetts Town and Vital Records 1620-1988,” which differs from the seventeenth century original in the same collection, which conflicts with the baptismal date in church records, which may differ from a transcript of a contemporary family Bible….

In our example with Richard Newton, the vital records search is pretty straight-forward. I need to look at the vital records of Marlborough, Southborough, Sudbury, Charlestown, Marshfield, Watertown, Concord, and Framingham, all of which are available on I will bring up every birth, marriage, and death from the database, record the volume and page citations, print every relevant page for proofreading later (and to avoid Murphy’s Law – the one I don’t print will be the one I will have to look up again to settle a question or discrepancy). Then I will compare these to other transcriptions (e.g., early Sudbury records were published in the Register in 1852). Every single one of them, as many versions as I find.

Discrepancies may seem minor, but a typo or misinterpretation can snowball. Numbers of old calendar months, double year dates, and ages at death, for example, are fraught with danger. A death date written in Old Style as 2 (11) 1642, in his 54th year, might be translated, inaccurately, as 11 February 1642/43 age 54, then re-translated to 11 February 1643/44 in his 55th year, and you can see where that is heading.  A “nit picking” brain is a requirement for all genealogists.

Assuming that I have now gone through all of the relevant published sources within my reach (see my posts on “Cheat Sheets”), the “fun” part, alas, is over. Next, the drudgery begins – composition, analysis, and proofreading.

To be continued.

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.

10 thoughts on “Collecting published accounts: Part Five

  1. I like to think that I ascribe to (but no doubt misquote) the old expression, “It is not enough to dig deep enough to prove that you were right. You have to be willing to dig deep enough to find out if you were wrong.”

    Great post as always Alicia!

    Jeff Record

  2. I have recently come across a problem that I have never encountered before. In researching the family of my 3rd great grandmother, I have found identical, duplicate vital records of birth for the entire family of 12 children in the Barbour Collection of birth records in Connecticut and in the New Hampshire vital records for Piermont, New Hampshire. Have you ever encountered this issue?

    1. Kathleen, yes this is not uncommon. A family would be recorded in their original town, but migrate to a new settlement where all of the children would be recorded again, plus any new ones. It was an effort to make certain that in these frontier towns all births were recorded somewhere, at least once.

  3. In “Discrepancies may seem minor…” Please tell us what is the correct translation and why.

    1. Hi Dave, sorry forgot to put the correct translation in. It should be 2 January (the 11th month) and the year, which would either be 1641/2 or 1642/3, has to be deduced from context of the vital records. It would be written 164[1/]2 or 1642[/3] or if you have to guess, then you would add question marks 164[1/?]2 or 1642[/3?].

      The difference between “in his 54th year” and “age 54” is that in the former he has not yet reached his 54th birthday (i.e., he is “age 53”), and in the latter he has passed the birthday. Again, might not seem important, but if, for example, you are trying to distinguish between two cousins of the same name, living in the same town of roughly the same age, then it could get messy.

  4. This series on your methodology is wonderful, including the little missteps you made in your examples. After 25 years of doing this, mostly self taught, I’ve made all the usual rookie mistakes and still do. On a good day I come close to following something like your rigor and methodology. I think this series of blogs could be the basis for a wonderful online lecture on the practical approach to doing good basic research on early NE ancestors. Maybe combine it with some of the genealogical methodology in Bob Anderson’s book?

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