The pen is mighty

fulton family crop1We’ve all been there: we’ve all looked for that one record that should exist – but does not. And why? Why did our ancestors do that to us? Why did they forget to file paperwork? or procrastinate when registering a deed? Why didn’t they know we would be searching for them years later?

I am often annoyed with my ancestors – they failed to write wills, file taxes, and baptize their children. This was before my brother Andrew got married (or maybe I should say, tried to get married) in Puerto Rico: now I have a slightly different view.

My brother and his fiancée, Coral, a woman from Dorado, Puerto Rico, decided to get married in the church where her mother was married. It was incredibly sweet, and my whole family was really excited to be a part of the coming together of two families. (There will be more blog posts to come on some interesting wedding traditions.) On the day of the wedding, we were first delayed because of torrential rain. Not a surprise, as we were in a tropical climate. Yet, once the rain stopped, we were postponed again because the minister needed an acid-free pen to complete the marriage record. I’m not kidding – we waited 45 minutes for the magical pen to arrive. And once the minister was armed with the correct writing instrument … we had a wedding. It was beautiful. Then we celebrated at a beautiful venue in Old San Juan.

Two days later, my (I thought) sister-in-law got a call from the minister – because my brother and his fiancé used their Maryland address as their place of residency, the marriage certificate was invalid. Apparently, the minister used a certificate for a Puerto Rican wedding, and my brother and his fiancé needed a “destination wedding” certificate. This was true – even though Coral was born and raised in the same community where she was married.

After some tears and various phone calls, we fixed the problem. The best man and the maid of honor were gathered together again, the proper paperwork was completed, and my brother was officially married. However, the inconvenience of the whole event got me thinking: no wonder some of my ancestors failed to file the proper paperwork.

In fact, my original suggestion was for Andrew and Coral to get married when they got back to Maryland – it would be easier. Plus, they were married in the eyes of God, in the church of Coral’s ancestors, so what would be the harm? Well … if they decided to take the easy route, a future genealogist would have a heck of a time explaining why their wedding photos were taken in a tropical climate and their marriage record indicated that they were married in Maryland. Or, what if they didn’t file at all? What if they decided that the church ceremony was enough? They would be just like those ancestors who failed to write wills, file taxes, and baptize their children.

It’s just another example demonstrating that our ancestors were human. They lived in the world, and dealt with deadlines and paperwork. They were procrastinators. They forgot to file paperwork. They made agreements in person and handed down heirlooms without a will. In short, they lived. We just have to find what they did write down to learn more about their lives – using the correct pen, of course.

Lindsay Fulton

About Lindsay Fulton

Lindsay Fulton joined the Society in 2012, first a member of the Research Services team, and then a Genealogist in the Library. She has been the Director of Research Services since 2016. In addition to helping constituents with their research, Lindsay has also authored a Portable Genealogists on the topics of Applying to Lineage Societies, the United States Federal Census, 1790-1840 and the United States Federal Census, 1850-1940. She is a frequent contributor to the NEHGS blog, Vita-Brevis, and has appeared as a guest on the Extreme Genes radio program. Before, NEHGS, Lindsay worked at the National Archives and Records Administration in Waltham, Massachusetts, where she designed and implemented an original curriculum program exploring the Chinese Exclusion Era for elementary school students. She holds a B.A. from Merrimack College and M.A. from the University of Massachusetts-Boston.View all posts by Lindsay Fulton