History Detective’s Guide: Basic Transcription

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Transcribing Revolutionary War era documents was one of my first volunteer activities for the Portsmouth Historical Society. At that time I was working with the original documents in my hands. Today I usually work from a digital image of the document and that makes it easier. On my computer I can enlarge the image of the document and that helps me to decipher what the text is. Because we can make digital images, transcribing documents is something people can do on there own at home. One of our best transcribers works from Georgia! She enjoys this work because she is a genealogist and she sometimes comes across the names of her Portsmouth ancestors as she works. We have hundreds documents from the 1600s and 1700s digitized (we have jpgs of them) and we are working at preparing more documents from the 1700s and 1800s ready to be photographed.

The more I transcribe, the better I get at deciphering the script. It is a skill that comes with practice. Here are a few tips that may help you if you work with transcription.

Glance over the whole document before you try to transcribe. Is it a will, a bill, a court case, a death inventory or another type of written work? The type of document gives us clues to what kind of words you will encounter. If it is a property inventory you are going to see household goods. The bill for construction of Southermost School is going to have building supplies. Legal documents may have special phrases used in the law. Some of the questions we ask are who wrote this, when did they write it, and why did they write it? Thinking of these questions ahead of time actually helps me to transcribe more easily.

Lines should break in the exact same place as on the original. That will make it much easier to move from original to transcription because they will literally “line up” the same.

Type the words exactly as you see them. Keep the original spelling, even if you would consider it wrong. Punctuation, capitalizations (or lack of them) should be like the original. Include everything – cross outs, words added, what is in the margins.

Take your time. Transcribing is puzzle solving and you won’t get all of it at one time. Keep coming back to it. It is often helpful if at least two people are working together on a transcription.

Write down what you can easily decipher first. If you find something you can’t read, leave a space for it and continue on. Go ahead, make a guess. If you are making a guess, put it in brackets with a [?] . Keep saving your work as you go along. You can go back to it and fill in words you missed earlier. Maybe someone later can determine what word belongs in that spot. I look at the words I can decipher as examples of how letters are written by this author.

Sound out the words that are puzzling. Sometimes the odd spellings can confuse us, but trying to sound out the syllables aloud gives us more of an idea of what the word is. Once I have a letter for letter copy, I often try to write it again in modern English.

A cautionary story about dating documents
At the Portsmouth Historical Society we have an early copy of one of the first Portsmouth documents. It is about rights to the hay on Hog Island and transcribing it sent me on quite a journey. When I transcribe I usually find myself using secondary sources to look up people and items mentioned in the document. A list of the signers of the Portsmouth Compact provided me with candidates for signers of this document because both documents originated within a few months of each other.
One of the first puzzles concerned the date of the document – the 20th of the 6th month of 1638. At first it sounds like it would be June of 1638. But the right to the hay was given to William Brenton and he wasn’t in Portsmouth in June of 1638. Until 1752, Americans used the Julian Calendar (named after Julius Caesar). The year began in March, so the first month was March and the sixth month would be August. Using numbers instead of names like March, April, May etc. was especially common in Quaker records. There are records of William Brenton being in Portsmouth by August of 1630. There are still mysteries about this document. I know that it is a “true copy” of the original document, but I am not sure if the “Clarke” signing it just means “clerk” or if an actual “Clarke” had made the copy.

transcriptions – hog island – 111.15


Hog Island Hay Document

! meatting myse
met again ^ on the 20 of the 6th mo:1638 upon publick notice
Will Coddington Judg Mr. Will Hutchinson Mr. Clarke
Mr. Wilbor
Mr. Sanford
Mr. Freeborn
Phillip Shearman Rich Carder
Randall Holden Edward Hutchinson, Will Dyer —–
It is ordered yt ye remainder of the hay which is yet —-on Hogg Island shall be granted to Mr. Brenton to mow this year for he neiey aty —— a trew coppy taken out of the 2/3 page of the Chapp Book of the first sotkmg at Portsmouth.
___ ___ ___ ye Clarke —re —-ro


My attempt at modern English
! meeting house
Met again v on the 20th of the 6th month; 1638 upon public notice
Will Coddington, Judge
Mr. Will Hutchinson
Mr. Clarke
Mr. Wilbore
Mr. Sanford
Mr. Freeborn
Phillip Shearman
Rich Carder
Randall Holden
Edward Hutchinson
Will Dyer
William Coddington, William Hutchinson, Jr. [husband of Anne Hutchinson], John Clarke, Samuel Wilbore, John Sanford, William Freeborne, Phillip Shearman, Richard Carder, Randall Holden, Edward Hutchinson,William Dyer.
It is ordered that the remainder of the hay which is yet — on Hog Island shall be granted to Mr. Brenton to mow this year his—–
This is a true Copy ———- taken out of the 2/3 pages of the Chapp Book of the first — at Portsmouth
The Clerk _________________________________________




A History Detective’s Guide: Primary Sources

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SJE glass Br Fer004

A vintage photo gives us an eyewitness view of Bristol Ferry circa 1900.

Historians divide the resources they use into “primary” and “secondary” sources.   To put it briefly, primary sources were created at the time of an event by people who had first hand knowledge.    Secondary sources contain second hand information created after the event by people who were not there.  Most secondary sources are written by people who have used primary sources and then woven them into a book or report.  The books by Edward West, Jim Garman and John Pierce that I mentioned in the previous blog are examples of secondary sources.  I often use secondary sources to help me understand the primary sources I am investigating.

Primary sources are at the heart of new historical research.  There are skills involved in using these sources, but they are skills that are developed from practice.  I am an amateur history detective, but I can share some tips I have learned from my own journey to understand Portsmouth history.  This is the overall object of this series of blogs.

Here are some examples of some of the primary sources that are important to discovering new information about life in Portsmouth.  We need volunteers to explore these primary sources and record the information they give us.

  • Objects: Tools, military items, household goods, clothing, vehicles (like the Willowbrook hearse or the mail wagon in our Old Town Hall).  At the Portsmouth Historical Society we need help in identifying and researching the hundred of items in our collection.
  • Places that remain much the same: like Glen Farm barns, the Glen itself, historical buildings like the Quaker Meeting House.  Landscapes and buildings have a story to tell us.  Students visiting the Southermost School get a unique feeling for what it was like to go to school during colonial times.
  • Geographic records: vintage maps, school district maps, charts, even place names Common Fence Point or Freeborn Street tell us who lived where and how the land was utilized.
  • Visual records: drawings/paintings, photographs, blue prints.  We have hundreds of vintage photographs in our collection.  These are “snapshots” of a moment in time in Portsmouth.
  • Written records: letters, diaries, laws, vintage books, trial records, public meetings (Early Records of the Town of Portsmouth), newspaper accounts from the time, inscriptions on gravestones, ads.   We have a trove of scraps of documents that need sorting and transcription.
  • People: Oral history and interviews of people who are sharing their experience of an event of time.  We need to interview native Portsmouth residents who have a wealth of knowledge about our town.  My students at Elmhurst interviewed the Camara sisters about growing up on Glen Farm and the videos of these interviews has been a goldmine of information for us.

I love using primary sources because I am finding my own clues and not dealing with someone’s opinions of what happened.  You are discovering your own answers as you look at a picture, examine a map, read a newspaper article or handle an object from the past.  The primary sources often lead to questions that secondary sources can help me resolve.


A History Detective’s Guide to Portsmouth Research

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JIm Garman

Town Historian Jim Garman

One of the Portsmouth Historical Society docents asked me how I go about researching Portsmouth history.  I’m a retired librarian who has come to love researching local history.  It is in my nature to share my sources. This series of blog posts will be a reflection of my journey in becoming a Portsmouth history detective.  Portsmouth has a fascinating history and our community (especially through the collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society) is blessed with a wealth of resources that need to be studied to give us all a fuller understanding of how our town has evolved.

I think of Portsmouth history as a gigantic jigsaw puzzle.  In framing the picture we have benefitted from the works of historians past and present. Edward H. West gave us a general book, History of Portsmouth 1638 to 1936, but he also gave us the West Land Grant Maps and numerous articles that were published in the journal of the Rhode Island Historical Society.  John T. Pierce’s book  Historical Tracts of the Town of Portsmouth Rhode Island provides interesting photos and articles on topics ranging from the Cornell murders to hurricanes.  Where Pierce covers a great many topic briefly, Jim Garman provides us with in-depth information. Some of his books, such as A History of Portsmouth, Rhode Island 1638-1978, are out of print.  Two of his more recent books, A History of the Gentlemen’s Farms of Portsmouth, RI, and Looking Back:  Historic Tales of Newport County  may still be available for sale.  All these works would be available at the Portsmouth Free Public Library.

There are many other books on topics in Portsmouth history and I will mention them later.  I suggest starting with West, Pierce and Garman because they have tackled a variety of events and people in our history.  If you want to learn about Portsmouth history as a general topic, start with the research these men have shared with us.  They give us a frame to the puzzle so that we can place our own puzzle pieces of information into the broader picture of the history of Portsmouth.


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