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(+) Consider the Source: Original, Derivative, or Copy

21 May 2021 3:34 PM | Anonymous

The following is a Plus Edition article written by and copyright by Dick Eastman. 

Experienced genealogists are always aware that they must verify information by looking at original documents or a microfilm or digital image of an original document. We should know better than to believe a statement on a web site, in a genealogy book, or a verbal statement from Aunt Tilley about the "facts" of our family trees. However, what is the definition of an "original document?"

Let's take one well-known claim of an original document that isn't really accurate: the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Almost all American schoolchildren are familiar with this document; and, if we paid attention in class, we know that the document is on display at the U.S. National Archives building in Washington, D.C. In fact, millions of us, myself included, have visited that building to view the document on display. However, how many of us were ever told that the document displayed in Washington is not the original, hand-written document? Instead, it is one of many copies that were produced on a printing press.

No, this isn't a story plot from a Nicholas Cage movie. In fact, the document displayed at the National Archives building in Washington, D.C. is a copy made by Philadelphia printer John Dunlap, official printer to the Congress, during the evening of July 4, 1776, after the original, hand-written document was given to him. Admittedly, the original and the copies made by John Dunlap had no signatures. The "copy" now on display at the National Archives is the only copy that was actually signed by each delegate and therefore is the one that we can now refer to as the real Declaration of Independence. However, it was produced on a printing press and is not the original, hand-written piece of paper.

The original Declaration of Independence was written by hand by Thomas Jefferson. After making alterations to his draft as suggested by Ben Franklin and John Adams, Jefferson later recalled that, "I then wrote a fair copy, reported it to the Committee, and from them, unaltered, to Congress." 

The committee sent the hand-written manuscript document, probably Thomas Jefferson's "fair copy" of his rough draft, to John Dunlap, official printer to the Congress. Dunlap printed the copies on the night of July 4, 1776. It is unknown exactly how many copies were printed, but the number is estimated at about 200.

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  • 24 May 2021 10:34 AM | Anonymous
    But if you get too much into the details, how many originals are there?

    A midwife recording births in her journal is a good one.

    What about a pastor who rides dozens or hundreds of miles in a circuit, performing the christenings of those who were born since he last visited, recording them in his journal, and then copying them to the parish records when he returns? That's now a copy, right?

    What about birth certificates which are generated as people copy information provided by the hospital and parents? I have a picture of my son's birth weight while he was on the scale, and the numbers don't match what they entered in his documentation.

    In the end, I think there are two important things to keep in mind. 1) Find corroborating sources when you can, and 2) your focus in finding information might be to uniquely identify someone instead of "getting it right." There are plenty of times where you cannot find corroborating souces, but even knowing a rough birth date could at least let you know "that's a differnt person."
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    • 24 May 2021 12:55 PM | Anonymous
      And just to clarify, my point isn't that Original/Copy designations aren't useful. It's that all of evidence analysis rolls up to thinking critically about the records. If you get too wrapped up in the semantics, you lose the forest through the trees.
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