Introduction to Gertrude Barber’s Records of Sullivan County, NY
By Geoffrey Brown, Between the Lakes Group LLC
Astonishingly few records exist today of people who lived in Sullivan County in the old days. Consequently, genealogical and historical research has been difficult at best — and impossible at worst — in all of Sullivan County. Gertrude Barber was, almost single-handedly, responsible for much of what we do have today.
Many factors – too many to discuss here – contributed (some still contribute) to this lack of record keeping and record retention. However, due to the shortage of records, those of us who seek to research in Sullivan County are frequently driven to accept not what we would want or expect, but what is available, regardless of deficiencies.
Enter Gertrude Barber
We really do not know what motivations inspired Gertrude Barber, nor do we actually know much about the woman, who died in Brooklyn in 1974. The staff of the Department of Genealogy and Local History of the New York Public Library described her as a Brooklyn resident, who began around 1929 to collect cemetery inscriptions and church records in Sullivan County, and who continued from there to collect elsewhere in New York State.
During the summers, Ms. Barber would travel to her current locale of choice, visit the graveyards and record what she could make out of gravestone inscriptions. Soon, she expanded her project to include capturing such church records and records of wills as she was able to locate and gain access to.
It appears that she collected within Sullivan County mainly for two summers, those of 1929 and 1930. During the following winters she typed up her notes, in six carbons, in her home in Brooklyn, bringing a copy to the librarians at the New York Public Library and disseminating the other copies to other libraries that indicated an interest in them. One of the older librarians at the New York Public described to this writer her wintertime visits bringing her typescripts for them.
We first became aware of her transcriptions at the New York Public Library, and it is to them – and, of course, to Ms. Barber — that we owe a massive debt of gratitude that we have the information she transcribed in an easily accessible form today.
You can read more about Gertrude Barber and get a sense of the other New York State locations she visited and transcribed in this article about her HERE.
As grateful as we are to Gertrude Barber today for her huge contribution to genealogy in Upstate New York, there were a few deficiencies in her work that deserve mention simply to avoid raising false hopes.
First, Ms. Barber’s survey was not comprehensive. As an example, she collected the old section (the oldest, but probably the smallest section today) of the Liberty, NY cemetery, but did not do the newer portions. (To our knowledge, those much larger newer sections have not yet been collected by anyone, sadly.) She certainly overlooked other cemeteries, particularly the very small ones that one occasionally saw around the county fifty years ago that are now gone completely. In Liberty, she covered the church records to which she had access, but notably these did NOT include the principal “downtown” churches of Liberty at that time: Roman Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Episcopal. Finally, she either did not locate, could not gain access to, or could not read any records of what was already becoming the substantial Jewish population of the Town of Liberty, nor did she record any of the Jewish cemeteries in the county. Likely she did not know Hebrew, in which many of the stones are written, so the task would have verged on the impossible for her.
The second defect is in the records themselves and her transcription of them. First off, gravestone inscriptions can be very difficult to read if the stone has been eroded or if moss and lichens have grown over it. Of course, if the stone is broken off or buried or defaced or stolen, the data is simply missed. She mentions problems with some stones in most of the cemeteries she collected. Second, with the church records, many of the pastors or church clerks who originally recorded them had little interest in spelling. For the most part, surnames had stabilized in terms of spelling by the time the earliest of these records were originally set down, but spelling of surnames in some of the records is creative at best. Handwriting was also likely a factor here; we have not seen the original record books, so we do not really know what kind of legibility problems Ms. Barber faced.
Ms. Barber also was not a Sullivan County native — at least as far as we know she was not. Hence, she had no familiarity with the family names typical of area, and doubtless made uninformed assumptions about spellings when transcribing. Some of the German family names in the western portion of the County seem to have really given her fits.
Her technology, while typical of the era in which she worked, was not what one might have wished for. Any time you are dealing with multiple carbon copies, typed on a manual typewriter, legibility inevitably suffers. Today we easily forget just how hard it was to make corrections on six carbons when typing. The consequences today are that the characters are sometimes blurred, there are overstrikes that make letters – and occasionally strings of letters – unintelligible.
Another defect was with Ms. Barber’s indexing skills. Fortunately, this is one defect that we can do something about. While she did index some of the records for Sullivan County, we surmise that her methodology was not the greatest, and since they are not up to the standard of her data collection, in our reprints of her work we have chosen to omit her indices. Instead of including them, we have indexed many of her records in this section, and where we have done so, our index appears with our republications. When using our indexes, please be aware that we suffered with the same problems of legibility that Ms. Barber no doubt did when collecting the records. What we saw was what we indexed.
One might say from these notes that we are being very critical, perhaps even unfair to Ms. Barber, but that is not our intent. Given the limitations at hand, she did an admirable job. More important, she was the ONLY PERSON WHO APPEARS TO HAVE DONE THE JOB AT ALL!
Even with the limitations of her records, we, seventy five years after she collected this material, say “THANK YOU” to Gertrude Barber for her dedication, patience, and generosity in spending a few years creating this rare compendium of Sullivan County records for us to use today.
What we offer
We offer in download form most of the Sullivan County records that Mrs. Barber transcribed and produced in typescript form — at least those that found their way to the New York Public Library.
Please see the Sullivan County page on our main website for a listing of what we have available.