Genealogy

Amusement Among the Abstracts: Finding humor in the driest genealogical records

For those of a genealogical bent whose family history in the US starts in Colonial Virginia, you must be familiar with the Gentleman Genealogist, Mr. Beverley Fleet, who throughout his life as an historian studied the legal documents of the courts, wills, marriage listings, death notices, deeds and the operational receipts of landowners and merchants, and personal family documents contained in many county records and in the Virginia State Archives. In addition, he abstracted many documents in the hands of private citizens.

His most important work, The Virginia Colonial Abstracts, was contained in thirty-four paperbacked volumes, organized by county, which were created between the year of his retirement as an accountant on Wall Street in 1938 until the year 1948, the year before his death.

This man sifted the various documents collected through the courts and family records of Virginians, creating thousands of abstracts that have assisted genealogists in this country for approximately one hundred years now. Many of us who have sought even the faintest of glimmers representing the lives of our ancestors owe a great debt to the man for his dogged determination to reduce volume upon volume of loose leaf court entries, land records, etc., down to easily perused lists of abstracts containing only the most pertinent information necessary for family historians to find and document their ancestors lives. Recorded in the crabbed handwriting of court clerks, surveyors, plantation owners and often almost illiterate government officials in early Virginia, the vellum and parchment documents were succumbing to the ravages of time, fire, flood, and general misuse. 

Unfortunately, many of the records were not filed in any order and were often found mixed in with other groups of records that did not always have anything to do with each other. Obviously the clerks of the colonial era were as bad, if not worse, at proper filing techniques as many are today. This meant that as Mr. Fleet began working with one group of records, he often found records that didn’t belong with that group sandwiched in among the pages. Rather than pull it out of the group, he abstracted those as well and often included them in the volume he was working on at the time. While he recognized that placing these items within the record groups in which they actually did belong would have been ideal, his purpose was to document the records before time and mishandling destroyed them forever. As each volume was completed it was separately indexed within the volume, but there was not an index created covering the whole series.

Sadly, this made it made it difficult to quickly find the records one needed. To determine if a record of an ancestor was in a particular volume, one had to pull out each volume and read the index to determine if that ancestor was included in it. It was slow and tedious work, but far easier than actually goingthrough the stacks of primary documents and learning how to read the strange squiggles that sufficed for handwriting in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Armed with a pencil, paper and a magnifying glass Beverley Fleet spent the last decade of his life doing that for us. Eventually the Abstracts were typed up and bound in paper volumes that found their way into the Genealogy sections of libraries across the country.

These volumes have since been reorganized into three large volumes and properly indexed to make the records easier to locate. As a genealogist who has been dipping into the original works since the 1980s, I have always pulled the volumes off the shelves of libraries across the US, checked the index and put the ones I didn’t need to review back on the shelf. The ones I did review, I spent as little time as possible in that process. I checked that it was the county I needed, perused the index for the ancestors name and page number, then went to that page and copied the items that were pertinent to my research, and dropped them back in the return stacks. This is the time honored process every historian uses to determine if the information they are looking for is contained in a given volume, whether it is a book of extracts or a non-fiction account of an historical even or locale.

I have never spent any time learning about the author of such a work or reading the prefaces to each volume to gather the author’s thoughts on the work. Genealogy is a time-consuming past time in general. The faster one can find the information one needs, the quicker one can move on to another line of inquiry. I developed a method of skimming sections of histories and documents, without taking the time to read deeply unless the details of the events I was researching provided interesting reading in and of itself, or gave me good social background on the reasons our ancestors moved around the country and the events that touched their lives.

I have recently discovered that the volumes of Fleet’s Abstracts, as well as thousands of other books and documents, previously only available to read within the walls of libraries, have now been digitized into pdf files which are available for download from the FamilySearch.org website maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I knew some years ago that this project was ongoing at the LDS Church’s Family History Library in Salt Lake, Utah, but had not realized the scope of how many documents and books are already available to any researcher armed with a computer or handheld digital device. 

Until recently, I mostly worked with the records that were indexed on Ancestry.com, because it provided the easiest, fastest method of reviewing large quantities of data to be included in the family trees I research and regularly maintain. With the advent of Ancestry and FamilySearch, most of my research has been limited to the databases on these websites. I was thrilled when I was looking for information on FamilySearch and decided to see if a particular title I knew existed might have been digitized yet. Of course, it was. Not only could I read it online, but I could actually download a copy of it to read at my leisure. For free!

That kind of price tag is thrilling to genealogical researchers, who have been used to years of paying for copies, buying important volumes for our own personal libraries, or paying fees to historical societies for the use of their libraries. Not to mention the savings in papers and pencils for note taking that invariably get lost. Of course, any book with an active copyright still needs to be either bought (most are available through Amazon, of course) or read at a library. But the number of genealogical materials whose copyrights have lapsed and relegated them to public domain is amazing. Currently the FamilySearch site has hundreds of thousands of books and documents available for use in research without ever setting foot in a library!

I began downloading the Virginia Colonial Abstracts this last weekend, and skimmed the author’s preface to see what the volume contained rather than going to the end of the volume to peruse the index. And there I discovered something I never had time to notice before.

Beverley Fleet was a man with a very droll sense of humor. He seemed to think nothing of providing little amusing anecdotes about the process of creating the abstracts in that particular volume. He often included stories about the people he met over the course of the research and even included some rather snide remarks regarding people who wanted to hire him to do similar work on their particular project, usually for pennies on the dollar. And he was a man who never pulled punches. Words that were generally censored out of novels and other tomes at the time he was researching and writing these, were not removed from his prefaces, which struck me as a delightful clue to the man’s character. He had a particular affinity for the word “ass”, which at the time more often referred to a donkey than a disgusting part of the human body. I began looking forward to reading the preface in each of the volumes I looked at and almost invariably ended up laughing over the things he shared there. It made me wonder that I had not really read any of them before. 

And because I enjoyed them, because I learned so much about the personality of the man who spent a decade of his life making research easier for other genealogists, I just had to share this with you all. 

If you have used his Abstracts before, you may have skipped over these little gems to get to the meat of your research. If that is the case, the next time you dip into them, take a moment and read the preface. I guarantee you some surprising entertainment in the middle of otherwise dry historical research. Sadly, the reorganized three volume version of his work most likely doesn’t include these little bits of oddity, and that is a true loss to our community.

The only problem I experienced while reading them was learning that he had not written more on his own that didn’t have to do with genealogy. It takes a strangeness of thought to make a person enjoy reading history in the actual documents of the period. I think if he had had the time left in his life, he might have become an interesting author of history. It makes me sad to think that he was gone from the earth before I arrived on it. 

I would have enjoyed meeting this man, I think.