Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Wild Cards and Transcription Errors

Trying to solve a puzzle in which you have no emotional involvement can provide an opportunity to reflect on how you work and to learn some important lessons.

I had taken an afternoon away from tracking our own ancestors to respond to a request from a friend. Family legend had it that a young woman travelled to Queensland in the late 19th; century, had a baby, married the next year, and then returned to her interstate home where her death was recorded some years later. Could I corroborate any details of this tale?

It sounded straight forward because the family name of the young woman was unusual (at least in Queensland). That proved to be the case—just a single entry and that was for the marriage I was seeking. I now had the year of the marriage and so (if the legend was accurate) the year of the birth.

The first blockage came when I found that there was no birth registered with the surname of the (soon-to-be) husband. I had already established that no-one had been given the mother's surname at birth in Queensland. So I was looking for a child born in a (probably) known year to a mother who might or might not have used her real name.

Fortunately the on-line tool for Queensland Births Deaths and Marriages historical index searching allows the use of wild cards prefixed by an initial letter in the mandated family name field. Could I try a brute force search?

The initial result was pleasing. Not because I found the missing birth, but because the test query generated a very manageable five results. (With hind-sight, this should not have been a surprise. The total population of the Colony was less than 175,000 at that time.)

So it was worthwhile continuing the wild card strategy through the alphabet. Within a few minutes, I had found my target. I could be fairly certain that I was correct because the family name of mother and daughter differed from my original information by only one letter— ..tt.. had been written as ..tl...

Which is where the learning takes place. It made no sense to leap to the worst-case conclusion (that I had no idea of the child's name) before considering the possibility that there had been a variant spelling. With German ancestors whose names are recorded with and without umlauts (Kühn, Kuehn, Kuhn), I should have known that, but charged blindly on.

It is a very useful strategy to pause to consider how a name under study might look when poorly written, or sound when spoken with an accent. A few moments reflection might open up a line of enquiry that saves hours.

And my puzzle … Further confirmation came when a search on the tl-variant of the name turned up the registration of the death of the little girl at just a few weeks of age. Emma married and returned to Victoria as the tale claimed. Was her husband the father of the little girl? That remains a mystery.

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