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Posts Tagged ‘Court Records’

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 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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I absolutely, positively LOVE court records! OK, I guess I should caveat that: I don’t particularly like court records about myself, but historical court records in search of those ever-elusive ancestors are way, way cool. They are second on my “genealogical excitement” scale only to Civil War pension records. I have an entire brief I do on Court Records because they’re so incredible.

Hardin County, TN courthouse

Hardin County, TN Courthouse

Guess what I found tonight buried in the Hardin County Court Minutes that I ordered and viewed at my local Family History Center? Well, I had been wondering for years how this particular man, Felix Barnes, fit into the community. I have Barnes ancestors, but had never seen him in the household of any of my Barnes kinfolk. So tonight, I found a record of Felix being apprenticed out. But the good part was this phrase, one that we live for in genealogy:

“…the apprenticeship of Felix Barnes, minor child of Lou[isa] Barnes (now wife of Sam[uel] Holt) said boy being an illegitimate mulatto child.

WOW. I knew Samuel and Louisa Holt’s family well, but never guessed Felix was Louisa’s child. This record doesn’t name his father, but implies the father was white. What’s written here is the kind of stuff you hardly will ever find written anywhere else, or written period, and that’s why court records are a-rockin’-and- a-shockin’.;)

(more…)

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