For most people, it starts simply enough.
Grab a name here. Find a date there.
Then add some more names. Then, more dates.
Pretty soon, you’re on your way to becoming a genealogist of sorts.
After a while, it becomes obvious; you’re really not exactly where you thought you were. Things aren’t as familiar as they seemed when you started.
You’re actually in a foreign country called The Past – sometimes a very strange and alien land – inhabited largely by dead people - people that you know far less about than you’d like.
Sure, you may know their names and their dates and even who married who and who had which children . . . but the world they lived in is not your world. The people who populate it don’t even speak the same language.
What did they do in the evenings before electricity? What was breakfast like in 17th century Massachusetts? Did the tooth fairy visit kids in West Virginia in 1877? How much did a blacksmith make for fixing a broken shovel? How far would a woman walk to visit a friend before it was "too far away"?
Even though good researchers are mostly concerned with their own ancestral families, they soon realize that it makes sense to learn as much as possible about this mystifying foreign land, which is why most of us have shelves of books about The Way Things Were.
But of course no matter how large our personal libraries get, they’ll never answer every question that pops up in the course of a day’s research.
This issue is usually driven home while transcribing documents – especially documents like probate records – that refer to things that are often foreign to us today.
People, it seems, must have talked funny in The Past, using words that we don’t use at all today or words that we use far, far differently.
Recently we’ve been transcribing a series of early to mid-19th century Virginia family estate appraisals and sales and all sorts of questions keep popping up, especially for us 21st century city folk.
Exactly what is a “shovel plough”? Does a “tobacco hoe” look different from other kinds of hoes, say, a “hilling hoe”? How many books are there likely to be in “one lot of books and a slate” that sold for 56 and a half cents in 1838 rural Virginia and what kind of books were they? Does the presence of books in a sale list imply that the deceased owner could read, or were they just for show? What does one do with a pair of “drawing chains with back bands”? Come to think of it, do “drawing chains” even exist without “back bands”? And by the way … what are “drawing chains” anyway and why would I want to own them?
There are, of course, a number of resources that skilled genealogists use to find answers to many (but never ALL) of these kinds of questions. For example, every researcher needs to have ready access to a good - and preferably old-fashioned - legal dictionary. I personally like those doorstop-sized earlier (pre- 1980) editions of Black’s Law Dictionary. Others may prefer Bouvier’s, but I tend to gravitate toward Black’s.
For example, when you run across a “lease and release” property transaction in 19th century Virginia, it’s always good to be able to get a quick answer from Black’s as to what all this is supposed to mean. (It’s much too complicated to explain here, but you can always look it up in Black’s…)
Also, it’s helpful to turn to Black’s when you want to know exactly why those three guys from the parish of Saint James Notham who you never heard of before were “processioning” your deceased ancestor’s farm in Goochland County in 1810. Were they walking around single file with candles, chanting like monks?
Black's points out that “processioning” was a process used to inspect, verify and record property boundaries in the days prior to formal surveying. Speaking of measuring farmland, when you see that one of the terms in your ancestor’s property line measurement was “perches”, Black’s will helpfully point out that they weren’t using fish – just a measurement that was equal to sixteen and a half feet.
Genealogists may also want to turn to any number of good dictionary-like references that explain what are now almost “foreign” words that our ancestors regularly used but have since fallen into genteel oblivion. Personally, I like having my copy of Barbara Jean Evans’ A to Zax: A Comprehensive Dictionary for Genealogists and Historians close at hand, right beside my copy of Paul Drake’s What Did They Mean By That: A Dictionary of Historical and Genealogical Terms Old and New.
For example, it’s helpful to learn that “cholera morbus” was not the same as what was known as “asiatic cholera” or that “tabby” was a term used to describe silk taffeta, not the family cat.
Of course, not every term you will run across will be found in the references mentioned above. Sometimes, you’ll need to do even more research to track down its true meaning.
Sometimes, context provides a clue or two. And sometimes not.
In fact, despite checking all the references above, I still don’t know the difference between a hilling hoe and a tobacco hoe.
Next time, I’ll be looking at a few more terms that may baffle or delight you.