While I was preparing for my interview (http://200inparadise.blogspot.com/2012/10/blogtalk-radioafter-action-report.html), I thought about the difficulties faced when working in an area that doesn’t have many indexed records. I raised the point on the show that as a Virgin Islands researcher, we are typically required to look through large record sets, every line on every page. While this is indeed daunting, it brings its own reward.
In my research, I have been through some 40,000 pages of archives. I have had to read through church registers front to back and scan matricals from end to end to find mentions of my ancestors. Of course, I found many entries that I was looking for. I found baptismal records of dozens of ancestors, marriages and burials of many more. These, often, were the exact pieces of evidence I needed to establish birth dates, parentage, marriage dates, and sometimes identity. In two consecutive censuses I found an entry for one Anna Ingeborg van Beverhoudt in my 4th great grandfathers household. The second census listed her as being born a year after the first, but errors in the census are common. It wasn’t until I found the baptismal and burial records that I discovered that the Anna Ingeborg from the first census had died at about a year of age and that the next child was given the same name.
In addition to finding those missed by the census, a careful read of the archives can often yield other information. Some of this information is typically not indexed, so if you are working from an index your are likely to miss it. I’m talking about the witnesses (or sponsors) at baptisms and marriages. Family members are often present at baptisms and marriages of friends, associates, and neighbors (sometimes referred to as the FAN club). What’s more, the witnesses may not be of the same faith. My Lutheran relatives were sometimes witnesses at Anglican baptisms or Catholic marriages.
Finding mention as a witness is extremely valuable. It shows that a person was alive and present in a certain place and time. For older dates, this may be the only evidence I have to show that a female was alive and in the islands at the time.
In another case, one that I wrote about earlier, my great grand aunt, Mary Conrad, left St Croix in November of 1893, alone, and married Harold Simonsen two weeks later. It was only by finding them as witnesses to a baptism, together, that I ever showed that they were together before she left.
Through reading the witnesses I was able to establish social circles for some family members. My 2nd great grandfather Claudius van Beverhoudt was close friends with Thomas Moorhead. They ultimately married sisters and were witnesses at each others weddings and children’s baptisms.
Another reason for a slow read is to see the historical context. It was through line-by-line reading that I noticed the overwhelming number of unmarried persons as parents in baptismal records. This prompted my study. And it’s through the same process that I discovered evidence of the British Occupation of the Virgin Islands in 1801 and the subsequent deaths of most of the British soldiers on St Croix.
As I mentioned in the interview, the lack of indexed records makes VI research much more difficult. The computer age hasn’t helped us very much, we’re still going through microfilms and paper. On the other hand, the use of indexes and on-line trees, the staple of mainstream genealogy, loses something. There is a great benefit to be had in doing the slow, hard work of really getting to know a record set. Slowing down to really get to know your ancestors and their neighbors.