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Gleaning a Document

By Jan Edwards

Just what does that mean? To glean means to extract information from various sources. It means to obtain, get, take, draw, extract, and gather. It means to collect gradually bit by bit.

It reminds me most of gleaning a field. After a harvest, people were allowed to go back into the field and “glean” or “gather” what was left over and missed.


When researching a document we sometimes do not see all the data that is on the document.

It depends on what we are looking for at the time. At first, we just want the name and maybe the date and where they were born.

As we “glean” a document we return to a document we have already “harvested” and pick up what is left. Many times when we find a death certificate, we quickly gather the data listed (name, cause of death, birth date and place if listed and death date) quickly looking to see if the parent’s names are listed.

There is so much more to be “gleaned.” How long had they lived in the community? What was their address? Who was the informant; was it family? Where were they buried? What was the name of the undertaker and funeral home? Did you gather the time of death? How long had they been sick? Was there a middle initial? Were they widowed, married, or single? Was there an autopsy? Did they die in the same county and state that they lived? What was their occupation? How long had they been in the United States? Was there a contributing factor to the death? Was there an operation performed? Was a Social Security number listed? Was a spouse listed?

When all you do is glean an indexed record, you are missing out on important data that is listed on the original. Today, Robin and I were looking for a record. I was looking at the images, she was looking at an index. I needed the person to be African American. Here is the index:

"United States Census, 1850," index and Images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 17 Sep 2014), Magloire Couvillion in household of Pierre Couvillion, Avoyelles parish, Avoyelles, Louisiana, United States; citing family 102, NARA microfilm publication M432.

It clearly lists Maglorie Couvillion as white.

He was actually mulatto.

"United States Census, 1850," index and images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 17 Sep 2014), Louisiana > Avoyelles > Avoyelles parish > image 15 of 100; citing NARA microfilm publication M432.

Check out the amount of money listed. $35,000 dollars in 1850! Wowzer! That’s a lot of money and it teaches us that they were not slaves. They were farmers who had land and lots of money.

Are you taking time to “glean” all a census has to tell you? How about the 1900 United States Federal Census? Or are you just glancing at it? So many times there are clues we just are not seeing because we do not “glean” the document completely. Take time to understand the abbreviations. For instance on this 1900 United States Federal Census.

Some abbreviations on the census pertain to citizenship

• Al- Alien, not naturalized

• PA- First papers filed declaration of intent

• NA- Naturalized

• NR-Not recorded or reported

More clues! More records to find!

Take the time to really “glean” the record, look at each field on a document, read each column in a census. Every little clue may be just what you need to break down that wall!

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