Genealogy Notebook presents stories, research and information on Pennsylvania family histories. Ran regularly, Spring 2004 to Spring 2006.

Genealogists strive to find many types of written records about their ancestors Some make checklists to show which types have been consulted, such as census, naturalization or church baptism, and nearly every genealogist who expects to be taken seriously uses current standards of documentation to detail sources that support his or her conclusions. Experienced researchers are aware that there are significant instances in which a single event such as naturalization or baptism can spawn multiple records of the same type that include different information.

An excellent example comes from the Pennsylvania naturalization records that begin in 1740, the year Great Britain enacted a law that streamlined the procedure. The published Pennsylvania Archives, Second Series, Volume 2, edited by William H. Egle (1830-1901), contains transcripts from the Pennsylvania copies of these records. The version of these records sent to England for ratification by the British Parliament, appears in Naturalizations of Foreign Protes­tants in the American and West Indian Colonies Pursuant to Statute 13 George II, c. 7, edited by M. S. Giuseppi (born 1869).

The records in Egle’s and Giuseppi’s publications are near duplicates – they cover slightly different time periods and contain some spelling variations. Egle worked with the “origination” documents while Giuseppi used the “destination” version, but both are “naturalization records.” The surviving originals used in the Egle version are found in the Record Group 21, Records of the Proprietary Government, held by the Pennsylvania State Archives.

Pennsylvania’s Septennial Census records offer fodder for other insights about this phenomenon (see “Genealogy Note­book,” Fall 2004). Robert Plowman, retired from a long career with the Mid-Atlantic Region of the National Archives and Records Administration based in Philadelphia and now the first archivist in the history of Delaware County, has discovered what appear to be “origination” copies of Septennial Census records for which there are no “destination” copies at the Pennsylvania State Archives.

From his examination of the statutes that established procedures for the Septennial Census, Jonathan R. Stayer, head of reference for the Pennsylvania State Archives, believes tax assessors in the counties compiled the census from tax records. “The Septennial Census returns here at the State Archives are virtually indistinguishable from county tax records in some cases,” Stayer explains. “I have seen tax records in a number of counties – for example, York, Adams, and Bedford – that appear to be either rough drafts of the returns made to the general assembly or the local copies from which the state returns were copied.”

Because tax records held by the counties – many of which are on microfilm at the Pennsylvania State Archives – usually provide much more information than the Septen­nial Census, Stayer recommends that researchers use tax records first and rely on the Septennial Census only as a supplement when tax records are missing for a particular municipality or year.

Multiple copies of records documenting the same event also occurred when eighteenth-and nineteenth-century pastors (particularly but not exclusively those of the German Reformed denomination) recorded a baptism, marriage, or burial in a congregation’s record book and in a private register kept by a pastor. There are instances in which crucial additional information, such as a maiden name or notation of relationship, may appear in one or the other, but not both.

Finally, there are the cases in which the original documents, particularly wills, deeds, and estate petitions, are recopied into courthouse record books. Researchers often are confused by what they see, especially since in many cases the items have been microfilmed by the Family History Library through the Family and History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The source of many of the microfilms in the County Records Microfilm Collection of the Pennsylvania State Archives, are not the originals but the recopied versions in the record books. When researchers want to find signatures of their ancestors or verify spellings for names that have been Anglicized during re-copying, they must often consult unmi­crofilmed loose paper estate records for the true “original.”

In these examples, whether it is the contrast between “origi­nation” and “destination” documents (as with colonial naturalizations) or between registers created by the same hand for different purposes (in the baptism example) or between an original and a copy (in the case of courthouse records), the question arises, which is the “official” record?

The answer to this question is complex, but often immaterial to the genealogist. When there are multiple records of the same type, each version might contain useful and distinct in­formation. And, in some cases, the Jess official record might be the most accurate, as in the case of an original, manuscript deed as opposed to the deed book version of a land transfer. Many an old deed has lost a boundary line or two when it was recopied at the courthouse, even though the version copied into the deed book is considered to be the permanently “official” record and the original (but accurate) deed is not readily available.

Perhaps the proper response to a researcher who excitedly gushes, “I’ve just found my ancestor’s naturalization record!” shouldn’t be “Which ancestor?” but rather “Which record?”


For Further Reading

Giuseppi, M. S. Naturalizations of Foreign Protestants in the American and West Indian Colonies Pursuant to Statute 13 George II, c. 7. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1964.

Humphrey, John T. Understanding and Using Baptismal Records. Washington, D.C.: Humphrey Publications, 1996.

Linn, John B. and William H. Egle. Persons Naturalized in the Province of Pennsylvania, 1740-1775. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1997 .

Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence! Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian. Baltimore: Ge­nealogical Publishing Co., 1997.

Rose, Christine. Courthouse Re­search for Family Historians: Your Guide to Genealogical Treasures. San Jose, Calif.: CR Publications, 2004.


The author thanks Robert Plowman and Jonathan R. Stayer for ideas that enhanced this installment of “Genealogy Notebook.”


James M. Beidler writes and lectures on genealogy. He authored “Genealogy,” a chapter in Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth, co-published in 2002 by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and the Penn State Press. His “Roots & Branches” weekly newspaper column appears in the Lebanon Daily News and the Altoona Mirror. He is a former executive director of the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania.