After disappearing for 60 years, a treasure trove of early records from the 1800s, some dating back to territorial days, were returned to the Madison County Records Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Imagine the excitement!
In mid-June of 2013, a large number of boxes were delivered to the Madison County Records Center, which serves as the county’s archives. These boxes held a variety of materials including deed books from 1818, superior and circuit court minutes and record books, as well as chancery (equity) court records and orphan’s court (probate) records. There were even some private ledgers and other records from early local businesses. It was a dream that had finally come true for local researchers as well as for the center’s staff and its loyal volunteers, many of whom had lamented the loss of the records for decades.
How did such records go missing in the first place? Basically, they were removed from the old Madison County Courthouse in 1953 by James W. Bragg, Sr. with permission of Thomas Jones, the probate judge at the time. Mr. Bragg was a historian working on his master’s thesis over a period of several years. He was also a preservationist at a time when records were carelessly kept in the basement of the former courthouse, where leaking pipes and general disarray were wreaking havoc on the old documents. After a change of judges and the demolition and rebuilding of the courthouse, James Bragg, Sr. may have been reluctant to return the records. His family kept the records safe for many years after his untimely death. Finally, the items were inventoried, carefully packed, and returned by James Bragg, Sr.’s grandsons, Ben Bragg, Greg Bragg, and David Frost.
Some people have expressed dismay that the records were not returned sooner, while many researchers in the area are just relieved to have the items back. Madison County, Alabama is not the only county that has experienced misplacement, theft, or loss of records not caused by disaster. Hopefully, other families with public records will do the right thing and return missing items to the repositories in which they belong.
Some of the materials returned are the oldest judicial records of Madison County and the state of Alabama and among the oldest of the Mississippi Territory. Alabama became a state in December of 1819, after being a part of the Mississippi Territory until 1817 and later the Alabama Territory from 1817-1819. One of the oldest court records of Madison County, the Circuit and County Court Record Vol.1, 1811-1813, was among the returned items. Also included was the Circuit Court Minute Book 1861-1863 from the Civil War days, including the only record of civilian court proceedings in Madison County that followed Alabama’s secession from the United States in January 1861.
One item that is generating quite a bit of interest is a thin, delicate book entitled Criminal Docket 1816. The date on the book is misleading; the record begins in 1816 but covers cases through the May term of 1824. This book has recently been carefully digitized and indexed. The images are not online, but they can be viewed on a computer the Madison County Records Center (MCRC). An online version of the index will be made available as soon as possible. The actual book is very fragile and will not be viewable by the public. The digital images are of high quality and visitors are allowed to download them from the record center’s computers.
In fact, indexes and digital images of the other books in the collection are available in this way. The goal is to merge the indexes and upload them to the MCRC’s website. Many of the court record and minute books were indexed by surname in the ancient handwriting of some overworked court clerk long ago; for example, the clerk may have written “Smith vs. Jones, page 70.” Some of these indexes are faded or torn in the front or back of the book, while some other books have no indexes at all! Volunteers are taking these books and the hard-to-read indexes, going back through each book to find and record the given names of the people involved in the court proceedings, and creating a searchable index that includes both given names and surnames, page numbers, and sometimes the case numbers. This will help distinguish which Smith or Jones was involved in which case within each book, so that the digital image of the desired page can be located and copied upon request. This is an ongoing and somewhat tedious process, but it is occasionally very revealing, especially when a “zinger” of a case is found!
If you have an interest in the holdings of the Madison County Records Center, you can check their website listed below. Be patient and check back again if the information you seek is not readily available, as the website is in the process of being updated. Visitors can also come to the center, located on the third floor of the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library, and look up items on a computer. The staff is friendly and helpful, and a dedicated group of volunteers, led by John Rankin, is busy indexing and digitizing the newly recovered records. Mr. Rankin will be giving a presentation about the “Bragg Collection” on Sept. 8, 2013 for the Huntsville-Madison County Historical Society (see link below).
As one of the volunteers, I can tell you that it is very rewarding to give back to the community by helping to preserve and to make these records publicly available. I get a special feeling when I hold a record involving a prominent early governor, judge, or town leader whose name I have repeated often when I was teaching Alabama history in the classroom!
Links of interest on this topic include:
- Madison County Records Center, 915 Monroe St., Huntsville, AL 35801, phone: 256-532-2347; http://madisoncountyal.gov/mcrc/index.shtml. If you have a Facebook account, you can also search www.facebook.com for “Madison County Records Center” to view updates and see photos on their Facebook page. You can also contact the staff via Facebook or by clicking the email link on the website.
- Huntsville-Madison County Historical Society http://www.hmchs.org/. View their calendar to see details about an upcoming meeting on Sept. 8, 2013 at which John Rankin will present fascinating details about the recently returned records.
- Mystery Solved: ‘Missing’ County Records Returned 60 Years After They Disappeared http://whnt.com/2013/06/11/mystery-solved-missing-county-records-returned-60-years-after-they-disappeared/. View a Huntsville-based TV station’s report on the missing records. The video is about three minutes long.
- Forget the overdue fine: Library thrilled to get Madison County courthouse records missing 60 years http://blog.al.com/breaking/2013/06/forget_the_overdue_fine_librar.html [Note: the Madison County Records Center is housed in the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library, but they are separate entities. The items returned are not under the control of the library; instead, they are a part of the county government holdings.]
- Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.