Reading 18th or 19th Census Documents
I have often used this following document as an example of reading an 18th or 19th century document. It can be difficult to read. It is a copy, of a copy, of a copy. Not the best example in the world, but something you will, given enough time, have to utilize, in order to get the information you choose to find.
Indenture Contract of William Bean
Dated 15 Sept 1804
When you receive a document like this, you will need to transcribe it into something legible, or readable. There are a few rules you need to follow:
NUMBER ONE: ALWAYS TRANSCRIBE THE DOCUMENT EXACTLY AS IT IS WRITTEN. Meaning that, all spelling and grammatical errors, including punctuation errors, are to be kept intact. What may seem a mistake, a date that doesn't make sense, a misspelled name, etc. are very important in proving the document that you transcribed is real. Also, be sure to add to the transcription where you received the copy from. An individual, a courthouse record, or the website where you copied it from. (If you don't know how to find the exact location of a document, or a photograph, you can simply copy the URL of the page. But the best way is to copy the properties of the document or image. To get that, you need to simply right-click on the image, click on Properties or Property and copy the unique URL of the document. Each imageon the web has its own URL that is different from the website URL. We will discuss this in a later lesson, in more detail.)
NUMBER TWO: If you know the relationships of the individuals listed in the document, make sure you add an addendum that describes the relationships.
Now, you will note that the document above uses some flowery handwriting, at least that's what I call it. It is an elaborate handwriting with a lot of curlicues, and flourishes. While this may seem hard to understand at first, with practice, you will be able to read this better, and better.
So, let me interpret the document above for you:
"This indenture made this 18th of Sept 1804 one thousand eight hundred and four between Jas. Christy owen Neal Robt Johnston and henry McDaniel of the one part overseers of the poor for monroe County and henry Smith of the other part witnesseth that the so overssers doth bind an orphan boy named William Bean aged twelfth years to the said henry Smith of the county aforesaid and State of virginia to Serve the said henry Smith until he arrives at the age of twenty one years, during all which time the Said William Bean Shall faithfully Serve his Master and all his lawful Commands obay he Sall not suffer any Damage to be done to his Said Masters goods without giving him notice thereof he Shall not frequent Still houses or taverns he shall not play at Cards dice or any unlawful game or at any time abscond himself from his masters business without his Masters leave he Shall not commit fornication nor Contract matrimony during said term but as a true and faithful servant shall truely and diligently Serve his Said Master until he arrives at the age aforesaid and the henry Smith in Consideration thereof doth Covenant and agree to have the so William Bean taught the art trade or Mastery of a Black Smith and provide for him a sufficiency of everyt thing thats requiset for an aprentice during the term of his aprenticeship likewise he is to have him taught to read the holy Scriptures planely to write a plane hand and arithmatic through te rule of three which Education he is to be thoroughly acquainted with at the Expiration of his time and also to give him Such freedom dues as the law direct taking Care to have Said aprentice instructed in the Principals and duties of the Christian religion as far as Said Master is Capable In writing whereof the partys have interchangeably set their hands inscribed this day and year above writen Signed Sealed ad delivered in the presents of - John Hinchman - Owen Neal - Henry Smith - Jas. Christy"
You will note a lot of misspelled words, grammatical errors, and punctuation errors, as well as abbreviated words used. However, this is a true copy of the document.
Once you have transcribed the document, you might also want to add a note that says :The above transcription is a true and intact copy of the original document as translated (name) on
(date) , followed by your initials. (initials) This just makes it more official that you are the one that transcribed the document. If you really want to be official, you can even have this copy notarized. (I have done that for clients, who have had documents questioned by other relatives and wanted proof that the documentation was real.) But that really isn't necessary, unless you want proof that is unarguable, which serves no real purpose, unless the proof must be taken into a court of law.
I do hope this helps you in deciphering your 17th or 18th century documents. While the information will not change, the handwriting, and the way it is written, is much different than that of today.
Practice reading some early documents that you come across. This will prepare you for reading more documents of the era.
As always, if you have any questions, please don't hesitate to let us know!