An Index Is a Treasure Map — Do You Dig?

Originally published in Indiana Genealogist 19, no. 3 (September 2008):147-150, with nice illustrations not shown here. Footnotes {1} have been converted into endnotes in this format. Copyright Indiana Genealogical Society.

AN INDEX IS A TREASURE MAP — DO YOU DIG?

Trying to do genealogical research without indexes would be like digging for buried treasure without a map — slow, tiresome labor with not much to show at the end of the day. That’s why IGS’s Marriage Indexing Project (for which I’ve volunteered on occasion) is such a great idea.

But an index, like a treasure map, is only as good as what it points to. If you don’t look where it points, you’re likely to miss some treasure, or rest content with fool’s gold when you could have the real thing.

I learned this lesson again a few months ago, while tracking some Smith cousins who were early settlers in La Porte County. La Porte is blessed with two different published indexes covering its early marriages (1832-1846). The Miriam Benedict Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution created one in 1959, {1}, and Colleen Alice Ridlen published another in 2000. {2} I photocopied the “Smith” sections of both DAR and CAR, as I’ll call them, at the Michigan City Public Library and left the building happy. Then I checked the listings for my great-grandfather’s second cousin Seymour Smith, who married Elvira Haseltine in 1845. Uh-oh. Somehow, sometime between 1959 and 2000, good ol’ Seymour had morphed into “Simon Smith.”

What happened? What else did the two indexes disagree on? I went through all the Smiths in the two indexes, line by line, and got a dozen more surprises. Of the 33 Smith marriages in La Porte County between 1832 and 1846, the two indexes disagreed on the particulars of at least thirteen!

I’d always intended to use the indexes to lead me to the original marriage records. Now I was motivated by curiosity as well as the Genealogical Proof Standard.

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According to the DAR index, Seymour Smith and Elvira Haseltine were married 5 November 1845. According to the CAR index, “Simon” and Elvira were married a week earlier, 29 October 1845. What does the original record show?

On 29 October, La Porte County Circuit Court clerk, William Hawkins, issued a document addressed to “any person empowered by law to solemnize marriages in the county,” authorizing them ” to join together as husband and wife, Mr. Seymour Smith and Miss Elvira Haseltine” — in short, a marriage license. Seymour and Elvira waited a week, and on 5 November 1845 they were married by “Charles M. Holliday, a Minister of the Gospel.” {3}

So the CAR index got Seymour’s name wrong and recorded the date of their license as their marriage date. That doesn’t make it a bad index, as long as you remember to follow where it points. The original handwritten record does more than just correct. It shows how the error might have happened — how easy it could be to construe “Seymour” as “Symon” (although not “Simon”). The small letters “r” and “n” are well-known transcriber bugaboos because they just don’t look that different. Even better, the original also provides a big fat clue for ancestor seekers: who was this guy who married them? Since I knew Seymour came from a Methodist family, I checked DePauw University’s online index of Methodist ministers in Indiana during the 1800s, and found Holliday listed as the Presiding Elder of the South Bend District that year {4} … subject, of course, to confirmation when I return to the archives in Greencastle!

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Another dangerous pair of letters for indexers are the handwritten capitals “S” and “L.” According to the DAR index, Surena Beatty and Purdy Smith were married 27 March 1834. CAR disagrees, adding a second “n” to her name and dating the marriage four days earlier — correctly, as it turns out. The DAR reported the date when the marriage was recorded in the clerk’s office, rather than the actual marriage date.

The indexes agree on the bride’s name, give or take an “n.” But agreement is not confirmation. Was her name really Surena? Check the handwriting of clerk George Thomas in the illustration on the next page. The first letter of the bride’s name looks a lot more like the first letter in “La Porte” than the first letter in “Smith.” Contrary to both indexes, Purdy married Lurena Beatty. {5}

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Elbridge G. Smith and Mary Fowler were married 3 August 1841 — pretty clear in the original, but the CAR index calls him Eldridge.  {6} A penny-ante mistake? I don’t think so. In March, the Ohio Genealogical Society Quarterly featured the story of a researcher who spent years stymied in his quest for a Burgenmeyer family, in part because he counted “Bergemeyer” and “Bergamyer” as different surnames. {7}

At least you might well suspect any Eldridge of being an Elbridge and vice versa. More serious is the case of Jesse H. Winchell and Lucy Ann Francis Smith, who were married in 1835. DAR has “Francis,” CAR “Frances.”

I stared long and hard at the microfilmed page. The clerk had to write Lucy Ann’s name three times, and there’s a tell-tale dot above the vowel every time. Staring is just what genealogists do, but I felt like I was being overly obsessive, given how casual people could be about spelling back then. But eventually I spent enough time to notice what both indexes omit; in the third writing of her name — the marriage record itself — “Mrs.” is written in front of her name. Almost certainly “Francis” wasn’t a misspelled given name, it was her birth surname, and “Smith” was the surname of her previous husband. {8}

[Ahem -- these days I would say "perhaps" rather than "almost certainly," recognizing this as a valuable clue for further research rather than almost jumping to the conclusion. It's clues like this that prevent brick walls.]

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Even when indexes agree and are accurate, they may still hide genealogical treasure. Both indexes report that George Smith and Rebecca Goodrich married on 16 January 1836, and the original record confirms everything. The original record adds two key genealogical facts: Rebecca was under age, and she was married with the permission of her mother, Ashbel Goodrich. {9}

By the way, online indexes don’t make any better substitutes for the original records. Ancestry.com has three Indiana marriage databases; each one perpetuates the error of “Surenna,” as does the Indiana State Library’s “Marriages through 1850.” The Ancestry databases don’t even fulfill the main purpose of an index — two of the marriages mentioned in this article, Smith-Haseltine and Smith-Fowler, don’t appear there at all. {10}

How many treasures have you left undug?

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ENDNOTES

{1} Miriam Benedict Chapter NSDAR, Genealogical Records Committee, compiler, Marriage Records of Laporte County, Indiana, from the Organization Date, 1835-1850 Inclusive (1959; reprint, Kokomo: Selby Publishing, 1986).

{2} Colleen Alice Ridlen, compiler, Laporte County, Indiana, Early Marriage Records, 1832-1846 (Indianapolis: Ye Olde Genealogie Shoppe, 2000).

{3} DAR, 86. Ridlen, 36. La Porte County, Indiana, Marriage Records, B:30, Smith-Haseltine 1845; FHL microfilm 1,673,880, item 3.

{4} “Indiana Ministers (1800-1900) Index,” Archives of DePauw University and Indiana Methodism (http://www.depauw.edu/library/archives/find/databases/minister.asp : accessed 17 April 2008).

{5} DAR, 86. Ridlen, 36. La Porte County, Indiana, Marriage Records, A:11, A:12, Smith-Beatty 1834; FHL microfilm 1,673,880, item 2. A researcher who took the indexes as gospel might never even discover the discussion at http://home.comcast.net/~tj48/beatty2.htm#list5252 (accessed 17 April 2008) and the interesting if inconclusive evidence in Pictorial and Biographical Memoirs of Elkhart and St. Joseph Counties, Indiana (1893; South Bend: Northern Indiana Historical Society, Whipporwell Publications, 1982?), 667-668.

{6} DAR, 86. Ridlen, 35. La Porte County, Indiana, Marriage Records, A:327, Smith-Fowler 1841; FHL microfilm 1,673,880, item 2.

{7} Calvin Burgenmeyer, “William Justice Burgenmeyer, Butler County,” Ohio Genealogical Society Quarterly 48:8 (March 2008).

{8} DAR, 86. Ridlen, 35. La Porte County, Indiana, Marriage Records, A:48, Winchell-Smith 1835; FHL microfilm 1,673,880, item 2. This error has been perpetuated online at http://wc.rootsweb.com/cgi-bin/igm.chi?op=GET&db=mattmanwin&id=I2424 and at familysearch.org (Pedigree Resource File submission number 27940-0904101141915 for Myron A. Winchell).

{9} DAR, 86. Ridlen, 35. La Porte County, Indiana, Marriage Records, A:69, Smith-Goodrich 1836; FHL microfilm 1,673,880, item 2.

{10} “Indiana Marriage Collection 1800-1941,” “Indiana Marriages to 1850,” and “Indiana Marriages 1802-1892,” Ancestry.com (accessed 10 April 2008). “Indiana State Library Genealogy Database: Marriages through 1850,” http://208.119.135.17/db/in_marriages_1850/marriages_search.asp (accessed 10 April 2008).