John Barrett Robb, Services

My Scope

I am willing to consider any job, large or small (no minimum fee), 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. I am willing to provide up to an hour of free consultation or review of materials, depending on the scope of the prospective project, even though I might end up declining the commission.

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 projects (though only the DENNISON project is yet in full operation), and am thoroughly familiar with both the contributions that DNA evidence can make, and the limitations of this kind of evidence.

My Approach to Family History Research

In my work, I endorse the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) defined by the Board for Certification of Genealogists, except that I do not believe the terms “proof” and “proved” (borrowed from the courtroom context, where trials must have a finite end) are appropriate to historical research, which should always remain open-ended—just as our researcher’s minds should always remain open to new evidence, or new ways of interpreting the existing evidence.

Besides the usual scholarly requirements of careful, informed, and comprehensive handling of sources, I believe the crux of the GPS is “reasonably exhaustive search”. There is a big difference between the credibility of conclusions based merely on specific evidence found, and those that are drawn up 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 of a particular surname in the area being researched, and they thereby leave unexplored too many alternative ways of interpreting the evidence—or of finding new evidence. There is a need to consider, and explicitly account for, all occurrences of a surname in the records of each important ancestral place. Furthermore, since most records lack every-name indexes, there is often a practical need to go through every page of the original public records of the place, and to beat the bushes for private records as well.

Admittedly, this is a daunting proposition, and in most cases, people are going to want to settle for something less exhaustive, but it is well, I think, to bear in mind what the optimum standard should be. I follow this comprehensive and intensive approach in my own personal research, which is thus necessarily strung out over a number of years, though I do not expect my clients to make this level of full commitment. Research time and money are both scarce resources, and I am here to help them make the most of their available time and money.

I seek always the “best sources”—preferably original documents embedded in their original records context, or, failing that, facsimiles (photocopies or digitizations) of same. Often enough though, the original document is no longer extant (or is locked away in some closed archive), or is simply not practically (affordably) available, and one must make the best of circumstances. However, I am sufficiently averse to relying on derivative sources that I am not much interested in undertaking projects for others who are unwilling to make a commitment to searching out the best available sources for at least the most important pieces of evidence. Compiling genealogies from secondary sources is just not a good use of my skill sets, and I would be embarressed to call it research and charge money for it.

Reports & Other Work Products

Register-style Reports

For the more extensive projects I undertake, I have 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.

Informal Reports & Narrative Family History

While my detailed and intensely analytical “register”-style reports are intended to be fully comprehensive presentations of all the significant evidence, and of my conclusions therefrom, they are not the kind of thing I would want to send Aunt Tilly who has only a casual interest in her family’s history, or to distribute at large at a family reunion. I am 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. 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 advertize, or to market my services in any way. All my business came from follow-ons or from word-of-mouth referrals from more than satisfied customers.

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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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