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Archive for the ‘Court Records’ Category

Mary Garrett

Mary Garrett

My great-grandmother Mary Garrett married John Wesley Holt and they settled in Hardin County, TN and raised a large family. Mary was from neighboring Decatur County, and her mother’s death certificate (whose name was also Mary) indentified her parents as Mason and Rachel Garrett (thus, my Mary’s grandparents).

Mason and Rachel Garrett were easily found on the 1870 and 1880 Decatur County census but the usual strategies for locating their former slaveowner did not work. I noted Mason’s birthplace of Kentucky and his wife’s in South Carolina, as well as the fact that Mason and Rachel both were quite old by 1870. His 70-year old age in that year placed his birthdate around 1800, but other documents provide evidence that he was older than that and likely born in the late 1700s.

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1870 Mason and Rachel Garrett

In 2010, I lucked upon a court case that included testimony from Mason and Rachel. I say luck (or perhaps the spirits guiding?) because I was not looking for them in Hardin County, since they resided in Decatur, and because the title of the court case was “NC Davis vs John A. Smith, et al” which would not have garnered even a partial glance. It was luck because an index had been created that named every person in the chancery court records, which is where I first saw their names.

There were over 100 pages of court papers in that file with documents from at least 3 states. The court case was absolutely crucial to my research on this family; it described in detail Mason and Rachel’s lives on the property called Bath Springs and the circumstances of its various owners.

The documents named Mason and Rachel’s former owner as Thomas Jeff Johnson who had died about 1854. The slaves were then owned by his brother, William Johnson, who was killed by “guerillas” in Decatur County in 1863 or 64 during the Civil War. That explained why I could not find any owner in 1870.

There was also the jewel of testimony stating that Thomas Johnson got the slaves from his wife and stepfather. The file included a copy of Thomas Johnson’s will and inventory which was probated 20 March 1854. In it, he named his slaves: Mason, 80, Rachel, 49, Alexander, 22, Mary, 18, Franklin, 16, George, 14, Anna, 5 and William, 12.

Recently, I have peeled back another layer of this onion. Researching family trees at Ancestry.com gave me a prospective family for Thomas Jeff Johnson. He married a woman named Sarah Garrard, whose family was from Kentucky. Now that KY birthplace made sense.  I discovered a book (thank you Google Books) that had been recently published entitled, “James Welborn of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky and His Descendants,” by Gail Jackson Miller. I was able to get copies of the pages that described Sarah’s family and thankfully, they were beautifully footnoted so I could follow where the author got her information. I knew this had to be the genesis of my family—so “Garrett” really started out as “Garrard.” I ordered microfilm reels from the Family History Center and dug in.

If Thomas Johnson’s slaves came from his wife Sarah, it made sense to start the search for Mason and Rachel with William W. Garrard, Sarah’s father, who was from Muhlenberg County, KY. William migrated to Lauderdale County, AL where his family resided for some years. Later, William moved to Hardin County, TN where he died sometime before 1851. His estate inventory, unfortunately, has not been found. However, Ms. Jackson’s footnote led me to something even more valuable: a June 1838 mortgage in Alabama on slaves by William W. Garrard:

6/1838-William W. Garrard to secure a debt to Arnett and Dillahunty, the following slaves: Rachel (black), and her children Daniel, Andrew, Clayton, and an infant, Mason, age 45, and his wife Rachel, age 30, and her children Lucy, Alexander, Mary & Franklin, and boy Cyrus, age 45, and girl Harriett

This was valuable because it included the important phrases, “…and her children” as well as “and his wife,” providing relationships for enslaved people that are almost impossible to find. Even at age 45, Cyrus is still called a “boy.”

When William Garrard came to Hardin County, he generated more deed records– two in 1850 again naming his slaves. After his death, tracts of land were sold in order to pay some of his debts, and it appears some of those slaves were sold as well:

5/8/1850-Power of Attorney to Telemachus Jones to recover slaves in possession of Harrison Stephens of Hardin County… they were purchased from Thomas Lassiter as trustee of William W. Garrard: Rachel, 22 and her son Clayton, Yellow Rachel, abt 22 and her children Alexander, 5, Mary, 8, Franklin, 3, Ellen and Lucy.

5/13/1850-Telemachus Jones of Hardin County, attorney for Henry Dillahunty of Lawrence County, paid $3000 for Alexander, 15, Franklin, 13, Clayton, 13, George, son of yellow Rachel, 9, William, son of yellow Rachel, 7, Joseph, son of black Rachel, 7, yellow Rachel abt 32 and her child Anna, black Rachel, abt. 32 and her child Felix, Mary, 18, Lucy, 22, and Ellen, 12

Notice one Rachel is described as “black” and the other as “yellow” Rachel. Dillahunty was the party to the mortgage in 1838 which means I’ve got to research him thoroughly as well. But these three deeds together effectively identify the children of both Rachels. Also notice the widely varying ages for both Rachels and their children, especially on these last two deeds which are both dated in 1850. By the 1870 census, several of these names are not found living in or near Mason and Rachel’s household, which implies some of their children may well have been sold or died by that time. Part of their family may still be in Lauderdale County, AL. I did however, find the “other” Rachel living in Decatur County in 1870 with the surname “Choat.”

Rachel "Choat"

Rachel “Choat”

I’m going to search every deed transaction William Garrard made, and along with probate, census and tax records, and I hope to paint a clearer picture of Mason and Rachel and their family while they moved from Kentucky through Alabama and finally to Tennessee.  Some members of their family also show birthplaces in Alabama on the census, which again, matches the path of their slaveowner’s movement. Always notice and use those census birthplaces when you see that they are different. I recently gave two lectures on using land records, and this blog post illustrates one way they can be used effectively for slave research.

Stay tuned for more on the Garrard family. I’m hot on their trail!

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Joseph Harbour

Every family tree, whether we want to own up to it or not, has its share of criminals, vagabonds, shysters, thieves, polygamists, deserters, roughnecks, liars and cheats. While lots of things change, human behavior doesn’t.

One of my shadier ancestors was Joseph Harbour, my 4th great grandfather, who was born in September 1852 in Hardin County, Tennessee. He actually even looks like he was up to no good, doesn’t he? In the early years of my research, he was a mystery. He only appeared in the 1880 census, married to Hannah Barnes, with two children, Doss and Odie. I assumed he died after that.(I’ve since learned that we must always remember our assumptions and be ready to revisit them in light of new evidence.)

I’ve blogged before about various types of court records, and in my lecture on court records, Joseph is the star. Only when I finally got up enough nerve to venture into local court records did more details about his life emerge. It was amazing to me that this behavior was done during the era of Reconstruction, where racial hatred and violence rose to unprecedented levels.

Joseph Harbour appeared in the criminal court records from at least 1882 to 1897. In 1882, he had been charged with profanity. The court minutes alleged that he stood out in front of a church house and said:

“…let any [insert profanity] man report [me] that wants to and by God it won’t be good for him…I am a [more profanity] on wheels…I dare any man to report me…”

I guess someone called his bluff and actually reported him! Sounds like he may have been drinking to me. The records go on to show that Joseph left his first wife and children to marry another woman, Rachel Shannon. Before his marriage to Rachel, the court charged them both with Lewdness (my mind can only imagine what they were caught doing). Our ancestors were truly reality shows before reality shows came to be! For the next decade, Joseph proved to be a constant presence at the courthouse:

Amazingly, Joseph escaped all the charges with fines, even the more serious charge of attempted manslaughter.

Joseph’s escapades must have caused Rachel to contemplate whether taking Joseph from first wife Hannah was a good idea. By July of 1895, Rachel filed divorce papers against Joseph with the Circuit Court. Their divorce papers detailed a violent and troubled marriage with both charging the other with adultery. In addition, Rachel stated that Joseph “threatened to kill her,” while Joseph responded that “the child born during their marriage was not his child.” Their divorce was granted in 1896, after testimony from witnesses on both sides. I have heard of some crazy divorces in my time, but my goodness!

After the divorce, Joseph Harbour disappeared from the written record in Hardin County, however, some of his descendants remain living in the county today. Let me state for the record, they are lovely, lovely people;)

Now I understand why his first wife Hannah, when asked her marital status in 1900 answered that she was a widow (leading me to believe that for many years). I guess he was dead to her, LOL.

1900 census

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Some months ago, another interesting record set appeared on Ancestry: “Alabama Convict Records, 1886-1952.” I lecture on court records, so these types of records always get extra attention from me. If you watched “Slavery By Another Name” which aired on PBS in February, these type of records will come to mind. If you missed it, you can watch the whole episode online, but I highly recommend reading the book itself, which is much richer. I blogged about this book sometime ago. Also, Bill Moyer’s interview with the author is quite good.

Alabama was one of the worst perpetrators of convict leasing in the decades after the Civil War. Now that I’ve traced my Fendricks and Springer ancestors back to Alabama, I’m on the hunt for record sets to review.

Ancestry includes a some information on the source; these records are state records, ledgers that were filled in by hand with varying degrees of detail. I perused these records for quite sometime. There were whites and blacks convicted, but I’d be curious as to whether the percentage of blacks convicted was higher. I saw a few women and some young teenagers that today, of course, wouldn’t be incarcerated with adults.

Some of the records contain case numbers, and just to satisfy my curiosity I may one day try to find out more information about the crimes they were convicted for. I saw lots of larceny, grand larceny, assault, attempted murder and a few first degree murders. There were men convicted for running distilleries, which must have been rampant. I also saw a young black man convicted of rape, and his entry includes a date of death: I wonder if the rape was for a white woman and whether or not he was lynched? Most of the ones I viewed were eventually released. The prisoners are also referenced as being in certain “camps.”

If you have Alabama ancestors that “disappeared” for a few years, check out these records. There is also a related database on Ancestry called “Alabama Death Record of State Convicts, 1843-1951”. I didn’t find anyone in my family (not yet anyway), but these were still a valuable part of the social history and landscape of our ancestor’s lives.

Here are a few examples of the records I found (click on the image to see it magnified):

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I have talked here before about the benefit of researching court records when you get to the intermediate/advanced stage of your research. Divorces are found within court records.

I was amazed when I first started looking at these at how many people got divorced. Sure it’s no where near the rate we have today, but still, there were lots more divorces than I would have thought, even back in the 1800s. As we all know, there’s nothing going on today that hasn’t gone on for all of time and human relationships are no different. Divorces can give you unique insight into people and circumstances. Some of them do indeed strike me as funny today, but I’m sure they weren’t funny for the people going through them at the time.

First, you’ll want to find out what was the name of the court for your state that handled divorces for that time period. Many times (but not all) I find them in Circuit Court Records. If you’re lucky, by the 20th century you may find some sort of separate name index like I did for Montgomery County, MD. Earlier circuit court minutes may have indexes in the front of individual volumes. What you want to try to search for is the case number. The case number should lead you to the actual case files, if they survive. The case files are usually the original bound pieces of paper; these may include the original bill of complaint and answer, testimony and depositions, letters from lawyers and the final divorce decree among others.

I recently found one for a relative, John Prather. It had sorts of jewels inside, including his original date of marriage, which I had been unable to find in the marriage records. Sadly, it appears his wife left him, possibly for another man (or men;)). He didn’t see her for 3 years, and the court finally granted him a divorce. Even his older sister testified. Here are a few of the documents:

Lawyer's letter

Testimony

Sister's Testimony

Final Decree

I do a genealogy lecture on court records where I talk about my ancestor Joseph Harbour. He only appeared on one census record (1880) but when I looked at court records, it looked like he was committing a crime every other week! His divorce was hysterical. If I had just stuck to the typical records, much of his life would have remained a mystery to me.

Here is an example from a divorce in Hardin County, TN. This was between Felix and Matilda Harbour in 1899. It mentions their place and date of marriage, very valuable information because it occurred in another state and county. This case is sadder in that Matilda details physical abuse:

Matilda 1

Matilda 2

Also, the Family History Library does have court records and some actual case files microfilmed; I found this Hardin County one there, so check for your county/state to see what court records they have.

So…check them out when you can. If any of you have found any interesting divorce records, I’d love to hear about them.

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I finally got back to Tennessee after 5 long years! And what a trip it was. I just have to share some of the major highlights with you.

I flew into Memphis, TN and met in person not one but two cousins I had talked to on the phone a few years ago. Both Dianne and Leatha were kind and generous, and shared their family photos and funeral programs, which I handily scanned with my portable scanner & laptop. Here is a picture of me and my new cousins, after they treated me to a fabulous meal at the world famous Rendezvous bar-b-que restaurant:

Robyn and new Cousins

My cousin Leatha’s late husband was one of my Holt ancestors, and she shared many family documents that he saved. One of the most incredible was a Bible record of deaths (the bible was owned by his grandfather) that for the first time, listed my enslaved ancestor Malinda’s death! WOW.

Another Holt Bible

Later during my trip, I took pictures and video at the cemetery (Cawthon Cemetery in Hardin County, TN) where Malinda is buried along with many of her descendants:

Robyn with gggrandmother

Robyn with gggrandmother

After a night in Memphis, I drove the next day the two hours to Hardin County, and spent the rest of the day at the courthouse, where I would have one of the most mind-blowing discoveries of my entire 13 years of research. While perusing Chancery Court original loose files, I found a case where my two enslaved ggggrandparents, Mason and Rachel Garrett/Garrard, both gave depositions. This 200+ page file also included the names of their slaveowner and where he got them from (his wife’s father)! It had the slaveowner’s will and inventory (listing them and their children) and many, many many relevant details about that time and place.

Did I mention this had been one of my brick walls where I had been unable to find the slaveowners? Two other important points: they actually lived in the neighboring Decatur County,  but the plaintiff lived in Hardin so that was where the case was filed (thus, always look in neighboring counties!) And, although this file was started in 1870, it had information going back to 1854 (thus, researching post-emancipation files can lead you to the slaveowner).

The file involved a lawsuit between the daughter of the slaveowner and the administrator of her father and uncle’s estate. The suit lasted about 5 years. I’ve posted before about the value of court records, and yesterday I gave a well-received lecture at a local genealogy group about using court records to uncover the lives of slaves. Although these are not beginner records, when you’re ready, please do dive in!!! There are so many jewels to be found.

I spent two days in the ancestral birth town of my maternal grandparents, Hooker’s Bend, Tennessee (which is in Hardin County). I stayed with my lovely cousin Evelyn, and enjoyed the treat of her southern home cooking and charm. I visited several other cousins while I was there, and one even had a photo of my grandfather that I’d never seen before:

Luther Holt

Saturday I spent a few hours at the public library, where a kind courthouse worker allowed me to peruse old circuit court records (Thank you soooo much, Tammy) Then I headed 45 minutes away to Decatur County, TN to meet–yes, you guessed it–another new cousin, Emaline. We ate and laughed and shared information and I have to tell you again how gracious all of my extended family members are.

The trip closed out with me heading back to Memphis for one final evening with cousin Gloria. This was an A+-Super research trip and I came back enthusiastic, exhausted, but feeling blessed beyond belief.

I am still riding on the ancestor’s wings.

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The Digital Library on American Slavery is a web-based database that contains 18 years worth of research from the Race and Slavery Petitions Project. The site has been updated and anyone researching slaves and slavery should take some time to utilize this wonderful resource.

Here’s a little background from the site:

The Digital Library on American Slavery offers data on race and slavery extracted from eighteenth and nineteenth-century documents and processed over a period of eighteen years. The Digital Library contains detailed information on about 150,000 individuals, including slaves, free people of color, and whites. These data have been painstakingly extracted from 2,975 legislative petitions and 14,512 county court petitions, and from a wide range of related documents, including wills, inventories, deeds, bills of sale, depositions, court proceedings, amended petitions, among others. Buried in these documents are the names and other data on roughly 80,000 individual slaves, 8,000 free people of color, and 62,000 whites, both slave owners and non-slave owners…Established in 1991, the Race and Slavery Petitions Project was designed to locate, collect, organize, and publish all extant legislative petitions relevant to slavery, and a selected group of county court petitions from the fifteen former slaveholding states and the District of Columbia, during the period from the American Revolution through the Civil War. ..The Project now holds 2,975 legislative petitions and approximately 14,512 county court petitions.

Here’s a chart showing the states represented:

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You can search the site from the home screen using the basic search criteria or choose several other advanced searching options. You can also limit the searches using keywords, for example, you could put your county name in to pull up those entries only. I did a search for petitions from Maryland during the period of 1820-1850 and got 533 results:

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Each entry is numbered and summarized and the site explains how to order copies of the actual petitions for yourself if you find one relevant to your research. Here are two examples:

Claiborne County, TN, 1841
Abstract: Lewis, “a man of Color,” represents that “he was the property of William Graham Esquire … and was by him (amongst others of his slave property) [directed] in his will to be emancipated.” Noting that Graham’s executors “have performed the trust confided to them,” Lewis laments that “the act of assembly require for them to leave the State.” He further submits that “he is now getting old” and that “he has a wife & several children, from whom he feels a great hardship to be separated.” The petitioner therefore “prays that your Honorable body would … so modify the Law, that he might be permitted to remain in this State.”

TN, 1841
Abstract: Thirty-one petitioners, lamenting the deplorable condition of people of color and citing rights promised in the Constitution, seek a gradual end to slavery. The petitioners argue that slaveholders should be permitted to free their slaves on terms that will not involve their estates so long as the emancipated slaves can maintain themselves. They also argue that descendants of slaves born after the passage of an emancipation law should be freed when they reach a certain age. Black people to be freed should be taught a useful occupation and to read the Scriptures. Lastly, a law should be passed prohibiting within the state “the inhuman practice of separating husbands and wives.”

The website  is easy to use, beautifully organized, and a wealth of information. Take a look at some of the categories of entries, which you can also browse:

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Obviously, it does not contain every single record, but it does contain a very large (in fact huge) representative sample that is outstanding. Kudos to Loren Schweninger and his entire research team for making a tool that both historians and genealogists can utilize.

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I wrote in an earlier post about how much value there is to be found in court records with reference to genealogical research. Now I’ll be thej0301302 first to tell you, they won’t be in the first wave of record types that a beginning genealogist should approach. They are far to complex to dive into without first having a pretty solid grasp of your target family. But once you’re past the oral interviews and the census and the vital records and the land records and probate and you’re left scratching your face, going, “Hmm……where to next?” then maybe, just maybe, you’re ready to wrestle with this 3000 pound elephant.

My favorite subject to research in court records is slavery. Probably because I’ve had so many “Aha” moments (as Oprah says) using them over the past few years. Slaves were the biggest, most valuable asset most folks had and turns out they fought alot about them. So if you’re at the point where you are targeting a family for potential ownership of your ancestor (or even if you know they owned them already) there’s much to be gained by checking these records. I want to point out something that I sort of “relearned” recently.

I’m helping my godmother Carole with her Hyman family from Martin and Edgecombe Counties, NC. If you are from the area, you’ll find there was a huge white slaveowning Hyman family and one of them likely owned her ancestor, Arden Hyman.  We do know, from a marriage record, that our Arden’s father’s name was Zion. You know how we know that? From a subsequent marriage of Arden in 1900 after his wife’s death. That’s 35 years after slavery’s end, but that’s where we found the name of his father while he was enslaved. This illustrates the principle of searching far enough in time both before and after the period you are primarily interested in–with all associated people.

marriage

So now we’ve got two slave names we’re looking for. I pulled all Hyman wills in the area, but the will of Kenneth Hyman looked particularly promising because I see he names Zion, and he also owns an Arden. Those aren’t common names like a Mary or a Tom. The will was proved in 1834 and was actually rather brief. While at the North Carolina State Archives (NCSA), I searched all the relevant court books which include the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions as well as Superior Court. The goal is to milk every detail from the Hyman court documents that I can.

The “relearned” lesson came from the Loose Court Records. Those are all the little sheets of paper associated with a court case that are usually not written into any bound book, but kept in a metal tin case or other container in the
courthouse.
The NCSA has the originals, so I ordered the entire box for the Hyman family. What a treasure trove. Each person has their own file folder, careful organized by year. Kenneth Hyman had a big ol’ fat file. Don’t we LOVE to see fat files? Anyway, because it was all 1800s handwriting and time was short, we paid for them to copy the entire file to be analyzed it later.

Kenneth died in 1834 with a wife and several children. The critical phrase in his will was that:

all the rest and residue of my property I wish to be held in common stock until my youngest child attains the age of eighteen years with the exception that each one as they arrive at the age of twenty-one years or get married shall have one thousand dollars in money or its equivalent in property at the time

And what the loose records reveal is that because his youngest daughter was only about a year old when he died, his estate did not go through settlement until 1851! The records then name each and every slave, including an Arden and a Zion, as well as the final division into eight lots and which child they went to.

  • Lot No. 5- to F[rancis] M. Hyman: Arden, Eliza and child Hannah, General, Turner and Elsy valued at $2370
  • Lot No. 6- to Margaret E. Hyman: Zion, Adline, Daniel, Milly and Hilliard valued at $2200

The ensuing years had been tumultuous: Kenneth’s named executor, Theophilus, had also died during that time so an administrator had to be appointed. Theophilus had moved to Florida and died there, but not before purchasing land that turned out to be a scam–his relatives spent years fighting a court case there about that land. One of Kenneth’s daughters had married and her husband had already sold away her interest in her father’s estate before she could even inherit it. A brother Robert, who was ultimately named administrator, had beaten one of the slaves named “Boston” so badly, his siblings sued for damages.

What a horror this institution was, on a trillion different levels.

I remember reading that sometimes an estate wasn’t settled until many years afterwards, but this is the first time I’ve seen that principle in action and the payoff in terms of slaves. The year 1851 brings me much closer in time than 1834. The settlement documents show the slaves being rented out for each year. Imagine if I had stopped searching Kenneth’s files after the will and court books? Wow. I still have alot of research to do to tie together some loose ends on this line but I’ll say it again: Court Records Rock.

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