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Genealogy Tip: Trouble Transcribing? Google the Legal Boilerplate

September 17, 2014

I have a tip for you today regarding the transcription of old documents—especially legal documents, like deeds and wills. This was inspired today by a tweet from requesting transcription assistance via the twittersphere. Here is the tweet:

Clicking through, the document is again reproduced at the Brooklyn Ancestry blog. Looking at a document like this, one might be tempted to think: “Wow. Look at this. It’s handwritten. Someone put a lot of care and original thought into this. It must be unique. How will I ever decipher it?” Don’t despair. Your document may not be as unique as it looks. 

I’ve been through law school, so I may have a leg up in this regard, but legalese mumbo jumbo can be pretty easy to spot, once you know what to look for. The tweeted document is chock full of legalese mumbo jumbo. Such phrases as “by these presents“, “current money”, and  “jointly and severally” are dead giveaways. The good news for you, as a transcriber, is that few things are as mindlessly robotic, and endlessly reproduced, as legalese mumbo jumbo. The word for it is boilerplate, i.e. Inconsequential, formulaic, or stereotypical language.

Once you recognize legal boilerplate, do these things:

  1. Grin widely from ear to ear. Your document will practically transcribe itself.
  2. Puzzle out about a line’s worth of text from your document.
  3. Google that line of text.
  4. You should see in the Google results many previously transcribed documents of virtually identical verbiage.
  5. Compare your document to transcribed Google results.

Voila! Your document is transcribed! Here are the steps applied to the tweeted document: The language I Googled was this: “whereas marriage is intended to be solemnized”. I didn’t even use the quotes. The first Google result was this document, a plain-text transcription of an old register of marriage bonds. Here is the first bond that was transcribed there:

Know all Men by these presents that We Benjamin Cox and Wm Smith are held & firmly bound unto Beverly Randolph esquire Governor of the Common Wealth of Virginia in the sum of Fifty pounds Current Money, to Which payment will & Freely to be made to our said Governor & his Successor for the use of the Common Wealth, we bind ourselves Our heirs &c. firmly by these presents sealed with our seals & Dated this 26th day of February 1790
The Condition of this obligation is such that Whereas there is a Marriage Suddenly intended to be Solemnized between the above bound Benjamin Cox and Susanah North Daughter of Thomas North
If therefore there be no lawful Cause to obstruct the same then this obligation to be Void else to Remain in full force & Virtue
Sealed & Delivered in presence of Benjamin Cox (Seal
Tho Read William Smith (Seal)

This plain-text marriage bond transcription will serve as a template for our own transcription. Some few words may differ insubstantially, but by-and-large, these are our words. Compare them to the tweeted document. Our transcription, roughly, is this:

Know all men by these presents that we Garner Mayes [and] John Gill Craddock are held and firmly bound unto Beverly Randolph, Esq., Governor of Virginia the sum of fifty pounds current money of Virginia the which payment [well] and truly to be made we bind ourselves, our heirs, [executors] and [administrators], jointly and severally firmly by these presents sealed with our seal and dated this 5 day [Feb’y?] 1789
Whereas a marriage is shortly intended to be solem-nized between Garner Mayes and Judith Morris
The condition of the above obligation is such that if [there] be no lawful cause to obstruct the said Marriage then the above obligation to be void otherwise to remain in full force and virtue.
Sealed and Delivered     Garner Mayes
In Presence of  John Craddock

My transcription may need a little cleanup. The document had been cut off at the right of the photo. That hindered my transcription efforts, but my result here is very close.

Of course, the hardest thing to transcribe on documents like these will be the names. The names are not reproduced endlessly. As far as names are concerned, what you see it what you get. As for the rest of it? It’s probably been written and transcribed before. So look it up! Google is your friend.  Happy transcribing! 😀

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