Hairsplitting Those Property & Probate Records


Elizabeth Shown Mills


Originals? True originals? Duplicate originals? Record copies? Certified records? The ‘most original'?  How do I tell the difference? Does it even matter?

Many of the property and probate records we consult at the city and county level are record copies rather than 'true originals.' Historically, citizens created deeds, marriage contracts, probate inventories, and a host of related records in the private office of an attorney, a notary, or a justice of the peace. On those occasions, duplicate originals were typically made—a true original to be kept by the official who created the record and one or more duplicate originals for the key parties involved (say, the grantor and grantee in a land sale).

Depending upon the law at the time and place, either the official who created the document or one of the parties to the transaction might bring one of the duplicate originals to the town or county record office. There, the document would be recopied into a record book. Depending upon law and custom, the originals might be returned to the individuals who submitted them for recording—or they might be kept by the clerk. Retaining the original was a common early practice for probate records, less so for deeds.

As careful researchers, we want to seek the 'true original' or the copy closest to the original (the so-called 'most original'). If a city or county has preserved probate files  (packaged or bundled loose papers), you would give more weight to the documents kept therein than to the record-book copies that might be easier to read. As a legal and practical matter, however, record copies officially created and maintained by public record offices are treated as original records, unless a “more original” version is known to exist.


*Adapted from EE 10.4.

PHOTO CREDITS: "Woman mows split ends of hair with scissors," CanStockPhoto ( : accessed 26 March 2015), image csp16537218, uploaded by raduga21, 30 October 2013; used under license.


Posted 27 March 2015

Submitted byMillsTAon Thu, 04/30/2015 - 14:46

I have been working with a probate packet from North Carolina Archives. It is clear to me the deeds within were copied from a deed book to be included in the probate packet. One copied deed even had written on it that it was copied. So that being said, I think I should discuss that within my notes and suggest my client acquire the record from the deed book if possible for accuracy sake.

Submitted byEEon Fri, 05/08/2015 - 08:18

T. A. Mills,

EE could not agree with you more. For the time being, you and your client would cite the transcribed deed to the probate packet. But to avoid building new research on potential errors in that transcription, you definitely need to backtrack that transcription to its earlier incarnations—the earliest surviving version.

Submitted bytreshoon Sun, 05/10/2015 - 15:10

I have a related issue.  I once had temporary access to a very old document that had  turned black with age and poor storage conditions.   It did seem to be a printed document but was basically illegible.   I scanned it at 600 dpi, 24 bit color, and "fiddled" with it by removing various colors and also by drastically altering the gamma, contrast, whatever I could think of.   It turned out to be an original honorable discharge from a Civil War regiment, one of very few that still exist for that particular regiment.   Converted to a 16-bit grayscale digital copy, it was quite readable.   I returned the  black "original" to the owner and have since been distributing the digital copy.   The cousin who let me copy it has since gone incommunicado, and I have no idea where he is now, or even if he is still alive.    I guess there is no brief way to "cite" my source.

Submitted byEEon Sun, 05/10/2015 - 16:05


You are describing what would be considered a family artifact, not a document from an archives. The basic format for a family artifact can be found in the QuickCheck Model on p. 105. It's also discussed at length at 3.24 and 3.25, with other examples. You'd definitely want to include not only the provenance (as illustrated in these passages at EE) but also the fact that you digitally enhanced your artifact to make it readable.

But, why would you need a "brief" way to cite this source?