If I were told my ancestor was a “servant” I would form a very distinct impression of him, his state in life, his lifestyle, and maybe even his prospects to succeed professionally. If, alternatively, I was told he was a “farmer,” the impression would be very different. Isn’t it amazing the many layers of meaning we can attribute to about someone from a single fact?
But that’s what the records said!
I had that very exact experience when recently a fellow researcher shared with me the long sought after passenger manifest of my great, great-grandfather, Vincent Smarsh. Every record I had ever encountered regarding him said he was a “farmer.” Then I was given the typed transcript in the much-hailed series Germans to America co-authored/edited by William Filby (former State of Maryland Archivist). In this series Mr. Filby, or more accurately, his team of researchers extracted “German-like” names out of presumably zillions of passenger manifests, and dutifully transcribed them into a twenty+ volume series.
Wenzel SCHMYRSCH (Vincent Smarsh) listed his profession as a “servant.” There it was clear as day in black and white.
My heart just sank. This was the earliest known record I had of him and the only one that tied to the “old country,” so my head was just spinning. What happened? What must his life have been like in Austria? What kind of servant was he? What kind of unusual traditions did they have in 19th Century Austria that would lead a man into being a servant? I’d always believed he was a relatively successful farmer, so why is he a servant? But, again, there it was – “servant.”
Perplexed in Kansas City
Mystified, I turned to a higher power. My genealogy-friend, Bob, who in my humble opinion knows all things Czech, was quickly in my “to:” box as I crafted an email. Bob, too, was taken aback, but he offered a couple of theories. Maybe his family was running out of farmland to support the children. Unlike England Czech didn’t have the laws of progenitor, where the eldest son inherits all. Instead the farms got increasingly smaller generation by generation. Maybe he sold everything including any land to afford passage to America. Still not convinced he was on the right track, Bob asked for the original.
Do you hear yourself saying, “But why get the original? It’s extra effort and maybe money. You have the record.” That’s what I said, but I got the original anyway.
There it was – clear as day in black and white
I obtained the originals – digitized, microfilmed documents – a bit grainy, handwritten, but readable. I didn’t even look at them a second time. I just forwarded them to Bob. He speaks the language. He’ll be able to make sense of it….I hoped.
It didn’t take long before Bob emailed me back. Beth, I think there was a transcription error, he wrote. The occupation for the passenger listed above Vincent was clearly “farmer,” and it had an implied “ditto” line below and through the next dozen passengers. I know I didn’t see it the first time I looked at the original. I assumed that it would be the same information as found on the transcription., so why bother. Big mistake.
It seems then that Wenzel SCHMYRSCH (Vincent Smarsh) was indeed a “farmer.” And there was the answer – clear as day, in black and white, waiting for the researcher to take the time to look – really look – at the original documents to know the truth.
It was a dramatic lesson for me about the importance of always checking the original. Aside from the additional information that is usually available on an original over and above a transcript or index, there is always the possibility of an honest transcription error. In this case it turned out to be a change in occupation for my ancestor.