canstockphoto16180022 downloaded 3 January 2015

Your assignment is to go cut down some trees. Now, don’t worry, you are NOT going to ruin the earth with this assignment!

You may remember the adage, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” When you find a document that contains information that might concern your target subject, and it’s full of unessential boilerplate phrases, you should to make an abstract it, hence, cut down some of the “trees” that prevent you from seeing the forest.

An abstract is a summary of the information in a document.

To abstract a document you need to cull out the unessential elements. Just be careful you don’t accidentally take out a phrase you think is unnecessary, when in fact it is a critical piece of evidence.

So how do you know if it’s needful or not? Here’s some basic rules for making an abstract:

  • Do not change spelling or punctuation or capital letters. If a name is abbreviated or shortened with a superscript, keep it that way.
  • Do not rearrange the order of information as presented. I know you probably like those fill-in-the-blank forms for abstracting wills and deeds, but by rearranging the information you may inadvertently change the meaning and create your own brick wall problem!!!
  • Include every name

Abstracts for deeds should include:

  • Your own name and address and the date you created the abstract.
  • Citation of your source including the repository where you found it.
  • Type of document: “Smith to Jones Deed”
  • Date of the deed
  • Parties involved, the “grantor” or seller and “grantee” or buyer, and their residences if mentioned
  • The amount of money or “consideration” and if it was a down payment with terms or the full purchase price
  • Type of deed: Quit Claim, Warranty, etc.
  • The property description: Extract the property description by putting the whole description word-for-word in quotation marks. [More on extractions next week!]
  • Signatures!!! Caution: the signatures in a deeds book or wills book are usually in the hand of the clerk.
  • Witnesses: Pay attention to their names! They may be family or members of your subject’s F.A.N. club!
  • Dower release if noted
  • Date of recording
  • Do not put your abstract in quotation marks, however, if you include the exact wording in a sentence or phrase, put that in quotes.

Abstracts for wills should include: 

  • Your own name and address and the date you created the abstract.
  • The citation for your source including the repository where you found it.
  • Type of document: “Will of John Smith.”
  • The opening line, “In the name of God, Amen,” if used. If it is included, the testator was not opposed to taking an oath or associated with a religious group such as the Quakers who refuse to swear oaths. If this phrase is not used, note that in square brackets.
  • Date of the will
  • Name of executor
  • Bequests and those named. Separate the bequests with semicolons or periods.
  • Relationships when stated
  • Signature: Copy the signature the best you can. Note if your subject signed with a mark [+] and copy it the best you can.
  • Names of witnesses
  • Date the will was proved if stated
  • Any other elements that are pertinent to the case. Study the local inheritance laws of that time. Until you understand the laws, keep the legal language in your abstract.

Here’s three samples from The Board for Certification of Genealogists, “Document Samples.” In each case, you may click on the item and view the document, transcription, and abstract. You may view these by clicking here.

  • 1836 North Carolina Agreement
  • 1864 South Carolina Will
  • 1911 South Carolina Deed

Are you ready! Time to go cut down some “trees” so you can see the forest!