Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Saturday, March 10, 2018

A Family History Mission: A Plethora of Documents

No. 44

Note: You can do a Google search for "A Family History Mission James Tanner" to see all the previous posts in this ongoing series. You can also search for "James Tanner genealogy" and find them.

You would think that after doing genealogical research for about 36 years I would have an appreciation for the number of historical documents there are in the world. But being here and working in the Maryland State Archives digitizing records five days a week creates a whole new perspective on the original documents. I am finally beginning to really understand the immense task of searching records to find our ancestors. We physically handle thousands of documents every week. 

As I have mentioned previously, we are mostly involved with probate documents. These are court documents from the Maryland State Orphan's Court records. Here is a very short explanation of the Orphan's Court from the Maryland Court Website.
The Orphans’ Court is Maryland’s probate court and presides over the administration of estates. In simpler terms, the main job of the Orphans’ Court is to supervise the management of estates of people who have died – with or without a Will – while owning property in their sole name. It has authority to direct the conduct of personal representatives, has jurisdiction over the guardianship of the property of minors and in some counties, appoints guardians of minors.
The functions of the Orphan's Court in Maryland are performed by differently organized and named courts in every other state in the United States. The law governing probates, guardianships, and other related cases also varies considerably from state to state. My law background has helped me analyze and explain some of these records to the other missionaries and volunteers and I also realize how difficult researching in these old records can be for a novice.

While we are digitizing the records, we really don't have to worry about their content. Our main concerns are making acceptable images and managing which records we digitize. But in preparing the documents for digitization, we get into the issues of the content of the documents and have a whole set of challenges. The main challenge is reading the handwriting. Some of the Court Clerks back in the early 1800s had the worst possible handwriting. It helps to have a lot of people, including the volunteers, involved because many of the volunteers have been working with the records for years and recognize names and handwriting because of their experience.

The more I work with the documents, the more I realize their value for finding people. These probate and other related documents are fabulous sources for information about individuals and families. We are often fascinated by the Estate Inventories. We find people with estates valued into the millions of dollars in 1800 dollars. We also find probates of estates where the total inventory of possessions consists of bedding and a few dishes. The total value of these estates is just a few dollars.

One important part of the records are the thousands of enslaved people who are recorded. In addition are all the tragic references to small children being indentured from their families. We have one record of an indenture of a 3-month-old baby.

All in all, this a remarkable experience working with all these records. We do have to wash our hands continually and deal with chapped hands and tired and sore fingers. In working with the books, we have to handle thousands of pages and we actually wear the fingerprints off of our fingers. Why don't we wear gloves? Historically, archivists wore gloves. But the most recent findings indicate that the gloves cause more damage than our bare hands. There is a rather detailed and extensive discussion of the "White Gloves" issue in a blog post entitled, "Misperceptions about White Gloves."

I am grateful for all that I am learning and expect I will learn a lot more. 


  1. Alright, James. I am intrigued with the 3-month old baby. Is there anything more you can tell me?

    1. Sorry, we work with a number of volunteers and we were having a running conversation about the age of the indentured servants. It was a document found by one of the other volunteers. I think that this was a work-around substitute for slavery. We are almost processing documents during the Civil War.

    2. We have found out that after the Civil War, Maryland passed a law allowing former slave owners to put former slave children into indenture for a unspecified time limit.

  2. Thanks for the posts about your missionary service. I have found it interesting to learn more about how the records on FamilySearch come to us. Thanks for your service!