Jill and Bill are second cousins. They have been researching the Roberts family for about 12 years, and have discovered their 3 *great grandfather's arrival at Halifax. They are now working on finding the parents of Richard Roberts, who was born in the parish of Moore End in England in 1750.
The cousins have both just returned from holidays in different cities with their respective families. Of course, it was possible for both to sneak in some genealogy while their families were doing other things. Jill phones Bill and excitedly tells him that she has discovered the parents of Richard Roberts in the parish register, which she has seen on microfilm. What a coincidence - Bill has done the same thing. "Now we know that Richard was born on 3 May 1750, and his parents were Harold and Sarah" says Bill. "No, you have the date right, but the parents were James and Sarah" says Jill
A friendly argument follows, each insisting that they copied carefully, and the other must have misread the register. "Let's settle this by consulting the IGI" says Bill. They do, and although Moor End records from 1675 to 1813 appear in the IGI, there is no entry at all for Richard or his parents.
What does all this mean?
Jill and Bill are about to learn a few things about parish records, and about indexing.
It was the job of the Parish Clerk to record the baptisms, marriages, burials and other parish business on parchment, and to store the records safely. In a parish with a large population, the Clerk was a very busy person; and even in small parishes, the Clerk was often pressed for time. He would note down the day's events on scraps of paper, with the intent of carefully copying into the official register perhaps later that day, perhaps later that week. A dozen weddings in a morning could create a lot of confusion, and remembering who married whom could be quite a task.
The parish register was therefore not error-free. The scraps of paper were sometimes misplaced. Sometimes, the Clerk forgot to ask for some information, so made a guess. Then, at the end of the year, he had to make a copy of the register and send it to the Bishop. Copying long lists of names at night by candlelight does not encourage accuracy. After he had finished the Bishop's copy, called a Bishop's Transcript (BT), he often looked at which of the register and the BT was neatest, and sent that one to the Bishop so that his penmanship would not be criticized.
Jill and Bill are going to have to find out what each looked at. Likely, one saw the register and the other saw the BT. Which one is correct? We don't know which was made from those little scraps of paper, and which was made months later, The one made at the time often has extra information about occupation and place of residence, but this is not conclusive.
What Jill and Bill should do is widen their research to look at the entries for all the brothers and sisters of Richard Roberts. It is likely that it will quickly become clear whether Harold or James married Sarah and had children at that time. The marriage and burial registers and the Wills for Harold and James should also be looked at, if the first search is not conclusive.
If it is still not possible to decide, and if Harold and James both existed, they may have had the same parents. Research can therefore continue, even though one part of the family tree is in some doubt.
Why did the IGI not assist? The information in the IGI is from many sources, and is not necessarily complete. Sometimes it is from the register, or part of the register. Sometimes it is from the BT, or part of it. Sometimes, it is from someone's published summary of the register or BT. If you look at the Family History Library catalogue, it will tell you the origin of the information.
But then again, indexes are second hand sources. A recent book by Renie Rumpel on the indexing of Ontario Marriage Registration 1869-1873 found that many names had been missed or misspelled, and whole volumes had been omitted from the index. The same problems are found with indexes of registers and BTs. The IGI itself is not infallible. In my own research, Esther Feilden of Rochdale is shown as Esther Feilde Ratcliffe; and Johnson Rock is shown as Ruth Johnson.
It is wise to always look at all of the original sources, if they are available. Jill and Bill have learned this lesson, and are fortunate that there are two of them working on their research.
[To those who have an ancestor named Richard Roberts from England, and are about to contact me for further information please note that the Roberts family in this article is fictional.]