John Barrett Robb, Services

My Scope

I am willing to consider any job, large or small, and would balk only at something substantially outside my areas of expertise, or where I felt that there was a lack of commitment to quality research on the part of the prospective client. With the internet resources available today it’s not difficult for casual genealogists to make some headway on their lineages without any professional assistance, and the average genealogist who perseveres can learn to do much of the work on their own. Thus, by the time people think of turning to professionals or other accomplished genealogists, they tend to have already acquired enough experience to realize that what they’ve been able to come up with on their own is less than satisfactory, or to recognize that they’ve run into their own particular brick wall. I see my function as helping such people move to the next stage in their research, not necessarily doing all the additional work myself, but rather acting as an expert guide and mentor to facilitate their achievement of a deeper and better grounded understanding of their ancestors and their doings.

The first step in a possible new project is to take inventory of what is known, what work has been done, and what additional research might be done, and to that end I provide as much as an hour or more of free consultation or review of materials, depending on the scope of the prospective project, even though I and my client may not in the end reach a meeting of the minds.

Areas of Research Expertise

As noted in the introduction on my home page, my principle areas of expertise are: colonial Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New England, and their westward emanations into Tennessee, Kentucky, and the old Northwest Territories, and I make a specialty of the difficult problem of linking mid-westerners in the first every-name USCensus of 1850, to their roots in the original 13 colonies. However, I have done at least some work in the records of many other American colonies and states, and am generally familiar as well both with the historical context, and the genealogical sources for English roots, from 1900 back into the medieval period.

A further exploration of this website will uncover my interest in DNA testing as a genealogical research tool. I am host to several DNA surname and (genealogical) patrilineage projects, and am thoroughly familiar with both the contributions that DNA evidence can make, and the limitations of this kind of evidence. The definitional link is to my DNA testing information page where I’ve provided extensive explanation and guidance on this subject to help interested genealogists make the most of whatever discretionary money they may have to spend in this venue.

My Approach to Family History Research

Although I sometimes undertake to address specific narrow questions posed by my clients, I am a strong believer that sound and credible genealogies are necessarily founded on research that is both comprehensive and reasonably exhaustive. There is a big difference between the credibility of conclusions based merely on specific evidence found, and those that are formulated in consideration all the evidence found in a comprehensive search.

Too many serious genealogists, whatever the quality of their evidence and their handling of it, fail to consider all the families and individuals of a particular surname in the area being researched, and they thereby leave unexplored too many alternative ways of interpreting the evidence which may point towards very different conclusions from the ones that seem obvious at first sight. I believe that there is a need to consider, and explicitly account for, all occurrences of a surname in the records of each important ancestral place. By now there are indexes for most sets of records, but these come in varying degrees of accuracy and completeness, and there are times when it’s necessary to scan through every page of certain original records books trolling for all instances of the names of interest.

There is also a need to take account of any private family records, accounts, or traditions said to have been passed down in families even though the validity of these materials may be highly questionable; all too many of these productions turn out to have been the work of earlier amateur genealogists with no special knowledge who mix fact and fiction indiscriminately, yet their leavings have somehow acquired a spurious authority conferred by nothing more than their age. Private family documents more or less ocntemporary to the events they concern are one thing, at least where the authors or informants are can reasonably be inferred to be personally knowledgeable, but all other such claims or beliefs need to be vetted at least for plausibility against the surviving public records, and those that do not stand up to such scruting need to be explictly disavowed. Validating private family records is best done by tracing claims predicated on them to their original documentary source, which may be the handwritten reminiscences (mixed with speculation) of some now deceased family member, or one of the host of published family accounts in the “mug book” literature of many US counties for the period 1875-1915. Once the ultimate source has been identified, there is then need for a careful sifting to separate out any grains of gold from the dross of imaginative speculation.

The primary records evidence itself is the thing, and to the extent practicable I seek out the “best sources”—preferably the original documents viewed and photocopied, or at least carefully abstracted, in their original records context. I also, of course, in my reporting, adhere to the modern scholarly standard of citing each claimed fact to the specific source I have relied on.

These are admittedly high standards, and while I routinely adhere to them in my own personal research, I don’t necessarily expect my less experienced clients to buy fully into my comprehensive and exhaustive approach. After all, it took me many years to fully realize that whatever genealogists (or for that matter people in general) have come to believe ultimately rests on a relatively small set of facts and suppositions, many of them ungrounded and even unexamined, and that the only way to effectively approach the truth of the matter is through comprehensive and exhautive research, followed by an analytical process that takes every single piece of evidence into consideration, with special attention to the inevitable contradictions and anomalies.

At the minimum, though, I seek to establish for my research projects a comprehensive framework of sources and names, and then work with my clients to fill this in over time according to a prioritized schedule of research, some of which may be performed by the client himself. Research time and money are both scarce resources, and I am here to help my clients make the most of their available time and money.

Thus, for example, a good deal of my practice is rooted in the records of Virginia from about 1750-1850, by the end of which time many original Virginians had moved on to the other states or territories. Beginning with the year 1782 (or the first year of new county formation) the new Virginia Commonwealth mandated that each county systematically and annually compile and forward to the central authorities tax records that list by name virtually the whole of the adult male population of the county aged 21 or over, with corresponding listings by name of the owners of each piece of land. Although these tax records are unindexed and require a good deal of judicious interpretation, they collectively provide a pretty comprehensive inventory of all the people of certain names who may need to be taken into account in any serious search for ancestors with Virginia roots, and they also provide circumstantial evidence of relationships, comings of age, departures, etc. As a result, I nearly always begin a new Virginia-based client project by compiling abstracts of all the tax records for the most promising Virginia counties in order to establish a comprehensive framework for the more focused research to follow, and I seek alternate methods of establishing broad research frameworks for project that involve other times and other places.

Reports & Other Work Products

Register-style Reports

For the more extensive projects I undertake, I earlier developed my own version of “register” format reports—so-called for their similarity in structure to the articles published in the New England Genealogical and Historical Register. The hoary Register, though, being a print publication, is constrained by cost considerations to a clipped style of source citation, and a very sparing use of detailed argument, which I think frequently short-changes the non-expert reader (experts are usually able to fill in the blanks on their own). My reports include an extensive and detailed bibliography that offloads much of the routine citation information to the end of the report, freeing more space in the footnotes for quotation or abstract of the actual evidence, and for detailed argumentation. At the same time, there is thus room in the bibliography for a more detailed consideration of the problematics of certain sources. I typically include with these reports various kinds of prefatory material and appendices that expand into particular problem areas. With the gracious permission of one of my clients, I offer my report on Daniel Denniston & Descendants as an example of my formal reporting style.

These Register-style reports may have any scope, and may be structured either as descendancies or ancestries.

Other forms of Reporting

I have more recently evolved a different approach to genealogical reporting that I generally prefer to the classic Register format, for a variety of reasons. I now prefer to create a suite of reports, each component of which addresses the data from a different perspective. First, all the salient evidence, and some not so salient, as well as a few important red herrings, are included in a comprehensive evidential timeline, consisting of chronological abstracts, detailed citations to the source, an annotated bibliography, and in some cases direct links to the actual sources. This comprehensive compilation of evidence reflects the bulk of the work I do, and stands on its own two legs independent of the varying interpretations that may be made of it.

By thus putting all my evidence in one place, in a standard readily searchable chronological timeline, I am able to offload most of the fussy footnotes that clog Register-style reports, and improve the readability and coherence of the Analytic report (or reports) which in their own different way constitute a second centerpiece of my work. The Analytic report comprises a series of sections, each of which brings the evidence to bear on a different problematic aspect of the project as a whole, and the culmination of the analysis, representing the gist of my purely genealogical conclusions is one or more reconstructed family trees, with relationships indicated by indenting, and at least one line for each family member.

I have further offloaded from these indented trees in the principal Analytic report), my analytical consideration and marshalling of the evidence for the narrow BMD (Birth-Marriage-Death) data for each individual in the tree. The discussion of this evidence can sometimes take up to a page of material, and it may be quite important to the overall case, but in most cases it its the BMD conclusions that are important overall, and not the evidential reasoning behind them. By thus offloading this extensive and necessary analysis, my principal Analytic report can focus exclusively on overall family patterns and the other broader evidential considerations that pertain to the set of subjects as a whole.

Finally, in addition to these standard report componens, I may publishe one or more supporting evidential compilations, best treated in their own specialized formats and modes - such as compilations of USCensus abstracts, annual tax records, or other records types that have each their own peculiarities.

I’m also prepared to author a more informal, anecdotal style of presentation, with a minimum of footnotes or other scholarly apparatus, but using the detailed research report as a foundation. I haven’t yet had occasion to create this kind of thing for anyone except myself and my own family members, because so far, my clients, being genealogists themselves, have preferred to write up their own families. However, examples of the kind of informal report I have in mind will be found in the personal ancestral material on this site, for example this one featuring my ggGrandfather, John McKee Gay.

Transcriptions

Just as I consider serious research to call for an examination of original sources, so I have a policy of providing my clients with facsimile copies of the most important evidence, and where these are difficult for the novice to read or interpret, accompanying transcriptions of same. I have worked out my own set of document transcription methods in two styles: a modernized format, and a more literal “expanded” format; both of these correspond closely to the corresponding formats defined in the section titled “Editing and Printing” in the Harvard Guide to American History, Volume 1 (Harvard, 1974).

I prefer to publish important evidence to my clients in both photocopy (or digital facsimile) form, and in modernized transcription. It is conventional instead to render transcriptions according to more literal methods, like the one styled “expanded method” by the Harvard Guide, and I have defined such a method for clients who insist on it. However, I consider these conventional methods of transcription to be outmoded halfway houses—once necessary compromises between the true literality of a facsimile, on the one hand, and the presentation of the document in an easily digestible form to the modern eye, on the other. With inexpensive digital photography, scanners, and internet publishing, there is no reason today to settle for anything less than a facsimile of the original of important documents, and meanwhile, the purpose of transcription, to bring the expertise of the transcriber to bear on making ancient documents readable for the non-expert, is best achieved by a modernized style of transcription.

I hasten to add that I am not arguing here that any but expert transcribers publish modernized transcriptions, or any kind of transcriptions for that matter. The best thing for the non-expert to do is to make a photocopy, or the most literal possible transcription, and publish that, if s/he is going to publish anything.

My transcription methods are defined in this essay, and I illustrate these with an example showing for comparison both modernized and expanded methods of transcription applied to the same will.

Transcriptions—Literal

For certain types of records that don’t really benefit much by modernization, and which are of such crucial importance as genealogical evidence that the detailed grounds of their interpretation may reasonably be shared with the inexperienced reader, a literal method of transcription may be appropriate. One type of record that I believe fits this criteria is a private family record of births, marriages, and deaths, whether this is entered into the end papers of a family bible, or simply written down on a scrap of paper. As an example of my approach to such records, I offer my transcription of the Gay-Durrett family bible record. As always, it is the images of the original themselves that constitute the real source, and a facsimile of these should be made available along with any transcription. I haven’t published these here only because they are almost 8mb in size, but for those with a special interest in this document, I would be happy to e-mail them a copy in PDF form.

Abstracts

Abstracts of important evidence, even more than transcriptions, should be backed by facsimiles of the original records. I am generally chary of other people’s abstracts unless they are done by accomplished scholars who define their conventions in detail, who make explicit what they leave out, and who rigorously use square brackets or other standard editorial conventions to indicate what they have interpolated or changed from the original. I provide just such detailed definitions for my USCensus abstract conventions and my UKCensus abstract conventions, and I include copies of these with the abstracts I deliver to clients. There are examples in these definitional files, but here is a more extended example of my USCensus abstracts.

For most records types I favor full transcriptions over abstracts, but one type of record for which abstracts are usually adequate is documents of land conveyance—mostly deeds and patents. Besides abstracting the genealogical gist (carefully preserving any language that provides direct evidence of relationships, and noting all names mentioned, even as witnesses), abstracts of land conveyances should always include a complete and detailed abstract of the metes and bounds, so that the deed may be plotted. Although for the experienced deed plotter an abstract is usually sufficient, as usual, if the document plays an important evidential role, a copy of the original should be obtained for backup. Here is an example of a format I am presently using for land records abstracts, although I have not worked up a full formal definitional file for this format yet.

Plotting Neighborhoods from Land Records

I am a big believer in plotting the land on which our ancestors resided, as well as the surrounding neighborhood. Most Americans who were born before 1900 were farmers and landowners, at least in part, and their land was at once their home and livelihood, their capital and hope for the future, and often their own little Shangri la. Nothing in their lives besides family was more valued, and because in the days before the automobilies and the easily traversible roads that we take for granted, most social transactions, including marriages, were between neighbors, mapping a neighborhood is often the key to unraveling genealogical mysteries.

I have had extensive experience in plotting deeds, surveys, and patents, which I then overlay against the background of detailed topographical maps. The resulting images can then be printed in color or incorporated into reports. Examples of the kinds of deed maps I produce can be found in the section on my gggGrandfather, John Gay, Esquire, showing the land of John Gay and his brothers in the Calfpasture area of Augusta County, Virginia, and for those with broadband I offer a more comprehensive map of the Calfpasture, and a better resolved map of the holdings of brother William Gay, along with the map key that defines the numbered and lettered tracts.

Other Tasks and Reports

I am also available to prepare lineage applications for societies like the DAR and the Mayflower Society, and other less-structured reports that seek to answer particular genealogical questions.

Fees & Charges

What about my fees? Mostly, I negotiate a price with prospective clients based on a fixed fee for a certain scope of research and reporting. I use for estimating purposes, $25/hour for my time, plus expenses. I consider this an undervaluation of my services, but I have always been more comfortable undercharging for my services, because an important part of my compensation is the knowledge that my clients are both happy with my work, and feel that that they have gotten good value for their money.

In nearly 30 years as a freelance software developer, I never found it necessary to advertise or to market my services in any way, and for the last 15 years since I’ve morphed into a professional genealogist, my only form of advertising has been a listing with the Virginia Genealogical Society, and this website. Thus, since 1972, just about all of my business of any kind has come from word-of-mouth referrals or follow-ons from more than satisfied customers.

You can use the PAY NOW button below to send me payments for my services, either with your credit card or via PayPal.

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Navigating from here

The menu buttons at top right take you to other pages on this site, while the nav panel above targets other points on this page, or brings up other resources (papers I’ve written, and the like). If you find yourself lost, the browser BACK button will take you back to where you were (some people also have a convenient BACK button on their mouse, right under their thumb). Or hitting the HOME key of your keyboard will take you back to the top of this page where you are now.

Editorial Note

As a matter of preference, I concatenate my dates (e.g. “13Dec1942”), and most of my place name references (e.g. “AugustaCoVA”). I do this, first, because the referents are single conceptual entities (atoms of thought), and I find it annoying and distracting when the components of data and place are split between lines of text. Second, compacting these elements saves space, sometimes a considerable amount of space, which allows more text to be visible in the same viewing window, which in turn facilitates analysis.

I am aware that these advantages are obtained at some slight expense of legibility, at least until one gets used to the convention (I now find the conventional formats, “13 Dec 1942”, and “Augusta Co., Virginia” much harder to parse and read), and I am prepared to accommodate my clients with these traditional formats, if that is their decided preference.

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Last updated 8Jan2018
© John Barrett Robb

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