HOW TO READ AN OLD BOOK
Unless you have some training in transcribing old documents you should probably take a class or find a tutorial to study before you start. No one told me that!
The old book which is the basis for Long Journeys was handwritten by my fourth-great-grandfather John Comins Jr. between 1778 and 1812. It contains records of payments he made to teamsters during the Revolutionary War as well as charts of supplies hauled and horses and wagons consigned to him. Twenty years later he was Justice of the Peace in Herkimer County, New York and used it to record his court cases. In 1812 he used a few remaining blank pages to record payments to laborers who worked on his farm.
Although the book had been in my care for more than 20 years I had read only a few entries when I decided in 2015 that I would transcribe its contents. The pages were brittle and water-marked; the handwriting faded. John Comins had beautiful penmanship that is incredibly hard to read. I had no idea writing had changed so much in 200 years.
If a word looks like it has an F followed by a small s somewhere in it, it is more likely ss. However that rather long letter you thought was an F could just as well be a capital Z or J or maybe even P.
Words may be hyphenated at any point, with a dash after the letter that starts the hyphenation and a double dash on the next line. For example: On August 22, 1800 six plaintiffs filed suit against Luther Winslow for $11.83 – being the pro-
=portionable sum due by the said Luther to the Plaintiffs . . . And yes, that would be an appropriate place to hyphenate the word today. Perhaps more interesting is that each plaintiff will receive less than $2.00 if they win their case.
However, on November 25, 1800 in the case of Wiliam Grimes vs. William Fenner:
The Jury after hearing the evidence of the parties went to there room under the care of said Constable and after being absent about Five Hours Returned and the Cort asked said jury if they had agreed on there verdick and was ans-
=wered that the jury had not and could not agree and as it was midnight and the last day of the week was contin-
=uing descent . . . This is an interesting case for other reasons than the unusual hyphenations. It appears the jury stayed out until after midnight on a Saturday night and since the Court could not be in session on Sunday the case had to be dismissed. The plaintiff was charged with all costs.
Some of the people who filed suit or had suits filed against them were listed on multiple occasions. One of those people, a man whose name I originally transcribed as Ezra Griffin, filed 54 lawsuits. I assumed he was the richest man in town, lent money freely and then sued those who didn’t repay him. I learned from census records that his name was actually Ezra Crippen. In 1802 he was granted a license by the Fairfield Board of Commissioners to sell liquor in his home. Now I wonder if those 54 lawsuits were filed to collect on overdue bar tabs.
Later I learned that both John Comins’ and Ezra Crippen’s headstones read that they were patriots of the Revolutionary War.
I spent about 4 months photographing the pages of the old book and then transcribing them. It was a slow, frustrating and thoroughly enjoyable project.
Excerpt from Long Journeys: Transcribing was an arduous process that evolved with each page. I began copying by hand what I saw in the book, then going back later to type what I had written. Then I learned old documents and books should never be touched. It is recommended that tweezers be used to turn the pages and white gloves worn throughout the process. The pages should also be protected from excessive light. I mounted a digital camera on a tripod beside my kitchen table and photographed each page, then downloaded the pictures to my computer, numbering them as I went. Eventually I learned to use a split screen so I could transcribe from the photos and at the same time type what I was reading. It was captivating and addictive work that took several months to complete.
Nathaniel Willard, Thomas Goodrich, Leonard Doty, Amos Colburn, James Thomson and Dorus Doty Vs. Luther Winslow – Note-this is one of the more legible entries in the book. Most are far more faded.