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Archive for the ‘State Archives’ Category

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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tslaI am so fortunate to be researching in Tennessee. I have always felt their Archives website is one of the better ones and for 12 years the service they have provided me has been outstanding. Living in Maryland, I email them questions all the time & I always get a timely, detailed, courteous response.

Well, lo and behold, they have outdone themselves by recently posting a PDF file entitled, “A Guide to African-American Genealogy-Related Documents Prior to 1865 in the Collections of the Tennessee State Library and Archives”. I read this document in utter amazement last night.

In short, it’s sort of a manuscript finding aid, but includes more than just their manuscripts (You are searching archives, historical societies and universities for their manuscript collections, right?).It also includes their diaries, the Acts of Tennessee, Supreme Court cases, legislative petitions, etc. Sixty-eight (68) pages of great stuff.

What makes this guide outstanding, is the amount of detail provided. It tells you what county (when ascertainable) each entry is from! I cannot tell you how many guides I read from other repositories and wish that information alone was included. I’ll see “Jones Family Papers. Slave Inventory.” and I think…”The Jones Family in what county? When?” Arrgghhhhh. (Addendum: The Library of Virginia’s Afro-American manuscript guide is also pretty darn good.)

Tennessee’s new guide gives precious details about each entry. For example:

Claiborne Family Papers, 1846-1938. County, Davidson. Box 2, Folder 5:  Slavery–list of negroes owned by Mrs. Annie Armstrong (Maxwell) Overton, 1865″.

In some cases actual slaves’ names are listed. The document covers the Acts of Tennessee, which has information on many slaves and freedmen/women. For example:

“Benjamin (slave), Gibson County, Jacob Bradley is authorized to emancipate him, 1832.”

This represents a phenomenal effort and a huge leap forward in my eyes. This is what (in my dreams) I’d love to see other state archives & historical repositories do. Yes, I realize many are short-staffed and underfunded, but I can still dream right?

Today I had to send the Tennessee State Library an email of Kudos. Here’s a bit of what I wrote:

As a genealogist and instructor whose specialty is African-American research, I can tell you that what you’ve released is heads and tails above anything I’ve seen from other repositories…I can’t express to you how necessary this is, and how welcome and how wonderful…The process of African-American research is incredibly difficult because of slavery, but you have shown a respect and an understanding of the hurdles we face. You have provided a tool that we can really make use of. As the descendant of enslaved Tennessee ancestors, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

If you are from Tennessee, you’ll want to check this out as soon as possible. They also posted a Bibliography you won’t want to miss.


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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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Meticulous is one of those qualities that really serves you well in genealogy. Case in point: If you are looking for Alabama Vital Records, and you go to that website, you’ d see that the State began keeping death records in 1908.  But what if you said…hmm…..did any counties keep records earlier than that? If you dug around (in Lawrence County for me) you’d be rewarded for that. I found a Death Register that started in 1882.  Looking at it was even more eye-opening:

Look at all the information on this thing! First of all, yes, it includes blacks. It notes the person’s name, date of death, age, race and occupation on the first page. It’s funny how sometimes they would mark the person white, then cross that out only to replace it with mulatto;) You can see an example of that above.

The second page notes the cause of death, place of death and burial, and the person who reported the death. This register goes through 1895. Some of the notations even say who the person’s parents were! Now think if you had just stopped and thought that the state level vitals were all that were available. This was such a hidden gem for me. I’m searching in Lawrence County, Alabama for my Fendricks family roots.  They are a BIG brick wall for me. Unfortunately, I didn’t find anyone with that surname listed here. But I thought this was a pretty cool record.

Now, at the end of the book, they had a list of the doctors that worked in Lawrence County in that timeframe. Nice. But guess what was next?

How terrific is that? A list of midwives! Notice the colored ones. What if that was your ancestor?

The places in which we find unlikely information still amaze me. I’m still convinced the ancestors want to be found.

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Sometimes I have two or three days where I am on a research high..there is no other phrase to really describe it. One day last week I went to the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis. I talked and laughed with my cousin Chris who works there, then I made copies of the agricultural and social statistics census records for several counties in Maryland. If you haven’t utilized the non-population census records, you’ll want to. These will really help to put flesh on the bones of your ancestors when you write your family history, as they say. I found one that showed my ancestor’s farm raised honeybees and sold honey. I wouldn’t ever have thought that. The social statistics don’t have individual names but give a snapshot of the entire community. In one community, I saw where they had few schools or newspapers, but over 20 churches. That gives you some insight into what was important in people’s lives at  a certain point in time.

But the centerpiece of my trip that day was looking at Slave Tax Assessments for Montgomery County, MD. I am lucky (at least in this case) that this county has these records for 1851-1864. And the beauty of them is that they list slave names and ages, by slaveowner. I live and breathe for records that actually name slaves..the revealing of those upon whose backs so much pain was inflicted still gives me chills. They are so often voiceless, and I think of this pursuit as trying to give them back that voice.

I correlated these tax assessments with:

I used all of these together and got a pretty good picture of the slaveowner’s family on this line: Nathan Cook. He enslaved my great-great-great grandfather  Rezin Prather of Montgomery County, MD. In fact, this exercise gives me a good picture of many of the slaveowners in that county. I’m going to try to get it written up in some fashion to share it with others who may researching slave ancestry in the county.

The very next day I went to the Montgomery County Historical Society, which is hands-down the best I’ve ever been to. The staff is knowledgeable and friendly (sadly, everyone I encounter while researching is not friendly) and their resources are endless. I finally joined the Society..I wanted to support them since they have helped me so much. I copied family files and obituaries and maps and tons of books unavailable anywhere else. I found a book on the community of Goshen that had an entire chapter on “Prathertown”, an area of Montgomery County founded by members of the Prather Family. A historical marker was placed at the site in a public ceremony in 2003. The photo in the header on this blog are many of Rezin Prather’s descendants.

prathertown

All this good information in two days. Nothing but a “genealogy high”.

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