Author Archives: Angela Lucas

About Angela Lucas

I am a professional genealogist and historian. My specialties include Alabama and its adjacent states. I currently hold the Certified Genealogist (R) credential from the Board for Certification of Genealogists (R). All content copyright © Angela Lucas, SouthernFolkfinder

Courthouse Fires Still Happen! Disaster in Van Buren County, Tennessee

We often think courthouse fires happened a long time ago, destroying our ancestors’ records and making genealogical research challenging; however, fires can and do occasionally happen today. Fortunately, there are ways around record losses caused by fire and other disasters. Some records have been copied, microfilmed, or digitized, and many have been placed in state archives and other repositories. A good example is Van Buren County, Tennessee. See the following post from UpFront with NGS, republished here with the editor’s permission:

Bad News & Good News — Van Buren County TN Office Destroyed By Fire & Microfilmed Copies of Many Records Available

Posted: 14 Jan 2015 03:30 AM PST

Image Source,

Bad News …

We always hate to report when a repository for documents has been destroyed.  Unfortunately, last week the Van Buren County (TN) administrative building was destroyed by fire.

Historical records from the 1840s and later were destroyed, including Civil War artifacts, pictures from the Civil War, birth certificates, death certificates, and thousands of historical records. The local historical society also was housed in the building and lost everything as well.

Read more via Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter.

Good News …

Though we can never replace those original records that were lost and apparently there are backup copies of some county records (the extent of those holdings is unclear), I did some checking at Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA) and FamilySearch, two great resources for TN records, and found that they both have fairly extensive collections of materials for Van Buren County.

Clear here to see what TSLA has which includes records on microfilm encompassing …

  • marriages from 1840
  • wills from 1840
  • inventories of estates from 1840
  • deed index from 1840
  • chancery court minutes from 1868
  • county court minutes from 1840
  • circuit court minutes from 1840
  • tax books from 1886

Additionally, the FamilySearch Catalog lists these resources …

Do also check out the FamilySearch TN collection (both indexed and image only historical records).

TSLA also has a partnership with where select TN records are available via the Tennessee Electronic Library to residents of Tennessee, as well as to subscribers at

And, Linkpendium lists quite a few resources for this county also.

So, though we are greatly saddened to hear of the fire, it feels a bit better to know that many records had been microfilmed and/or digitized for Van Buren County and are still available to researchers.

This is a reminder that the more records that we can get microfilmed, scanned/digitized, photographed or preserved in some other way and then widely distributed elsewhere, increases the likelihood that in the event of a disaster, backups might be available so that all is not lost!

Editor’s Note: Related Upfront with NGS posts …

+ Even now records are at risk to be lost … Fires, flooding, theft, etc., are NOT just something that happened to our ancestors!

+ Disaster Preparedness for Genealogists — Are you Prepared?

+ Underground Storage = Records Preservation


copyright © National Genealogical Society, 3108 Columbia Pike, Suite 300, Arlington, Virginia 22204-4370.

NOTE: Permission to republish this post was granted 14 January 2015 to Angela R. Lucas by Diane L. Richard, editor of UpFront with NGS.

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Posted by on Saturday, January 17, 2015 in Repositories, Tennessee history, TN, Van Buren Co.


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Researching in Limestone County, Alabama

One of my favorite repositories is the Limestone County Archives in Athens, Alabama. The building itself, a former train depot, is a pleasant destination for a research trip. They also have a massive collection of materials, and the staff is always friendly and helpful.

Limestone County Archives in Athens, Alabama
Limestone County Archives in Athens, Alabama

Most of the historical records have been moved from the courthouse to this charming place. It holds many books and files, some of which date back to 1818 before Alabama became a state. Court records, minute books, wills, deeds, mortgages, marriages, newspapers, loose files, and various county history books are here. I enjoy working with Limestone County’s records because they are organized and accessible, and many have been digitized.


Madison County, Alabama, Marriage Records

Similar to other Alabama counties, Madison County’s marriage records vary in genealogical value, depending on the time period in which they were created. One of the state’s oldest counties, Madison County, Alabama, was formed on 13 December 1808 as part of the Mississippi Territory.  The first marriage recorded in the county, between James McGuire and Elizabeth Gormley, took place in the following spring on 3 April 1809, as shown below:[1]

First marriage recorded in Madison County, Alabama

First marriage recorded in Madison County, Alabama

The county remained a part of this territory until 1817 when Mississippi became a state.  From 1817 to 1819, Madison County was part of the Alabama Territory until Alabama became a state in December 1819.  It is important to know the territorial history of the state in order to locate some of the early records.   Marriage Record Book 1, 1809-1817, located at the Madison County Records Center, is a book of marriage returns that occurred while Madison County was a part of the Mississippi Territory.  Copies of these records were sent to the Mississippi State Archives in Jackson.   Copies of all Madison County marriages from 1809 to 1973 are on microfilm at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery.

The Madison County Records Center in Huntsville, Alabama, has marriage records from 1809 to 2004. The courthouse has never suffered a fire or other major disaster, and there are no breaks in all the years of the marriage records. Most of the early records contain little information other than the names of the bride and groom, the date of the marriage, and either the clerk of court’s name or the officiant’s name and title.  On the first marriage record of James McGuire and Elizabeth Gormley shown above, one can see the name of W. H. Winston, C.O.C. [Clerk of Court], but the parents’ names are not given.[2] Beginning in 1820 just after Alabama became a state in December 1819, marriage bonds and the officiant’s certifications became part of the official records.  Books 3 and 4 contain the original licenses sealed in archival-safe vellum or a similar material.  No one knows why the county kept the originals during this period.

If either the bride or groom was under 21, a father’s consent was required, or a letter from the mother or a guardian if the father was deceased or absent.  After the Civil War, the consent age for brides was lowered to 18 years.  The original letters of consent were inserted in the bound volumes with the marriage records.  Some of these letters are simply scrawled in pencil on small scraps of paper. Below is an example of consent notes for a bride under 18 and a groom under 21:

This note of consent provides a wealth of genealogical information.
This note of consent provides a wealth of genealogical information.

This photograph shows the marriage of J. Hamilton Walker and Miss Virginia E. Reaves in December of 1871.  For genealogists, these consent notes from 18 December 1871 give additional pieces of information that the marriage record alone would not have ordinarily provided if they had been of legal age to marry without consent.  The first note indicates that Virginia E. Reaves is an orphan, was raised by a relative, C. J. Campbell, and is not quite 18, while the second note, written by J. Hamilton Walker’s father, Wm. [William] A. Walker, identifies the groom as his son and shows him to be “not yet 21 years of age.”[3]  It also provides the father’s original signature.  By this time, the signing of a bond and the inclusion of the return was a common practice in the county marriage records.

In later volumes, consents are sometimes on a special form and inserted into the book.  Eventually the consents became a pre-printed section on the marriage licenses.  These have the actual signatures of the bondsmen or the parents giving consent.  Parents’ names were not typically recorded in the registers until 1915.  By 1899, the age of consent was lowered to 17 for brides only.  By 1911, the legal ages to marry without consent were lowered to age 18 for grooms and age 14 for brides.  Also by 1911, the practice of including personal descriptions, residences, occupations, and religious preferences began to appear in the record books on a small, preprinted memorandum attached to the record and later as part of a preprinted license.   The bonds were included occasionally by 1913, sometimes with just a signature or two, and this practice continued until 1936.  By 1915, doctors’ statements were included, along with parents’ names.

The modern records from the 1920s to the present time are copies of marriage licenses with preprinted sections for consents and returns. By 1928 the marriage record included the names of the parents with the maiden names of the mothers of the bride and groom, and by 1936 the record indicated races, ages, birthdates and birthplaces, occupations, numbers of marriages, previous divorces, and even whether or not they were related by blood.

Madison County’s marriages can be requested in person or in writing. There is a small fee for copies.  For licenses after 2004, patrons must go to the probate office on the first floor of the courthouse.  While this process is specific to Madison County, other counties often have similar procedures. If you are looking for a marriage record, see if there is a county archives for your area of interest, or contact the county probate office or county court clerk.

To view Madison County Records Center’s online indexes, visit their website:

Happy hunting!

[1] Madison County, Alabama, Marriage Record Book 1: 1, McGuire-Gormley, 1809; Madison County Records Center, Huntsville.

[2] Madison County, Alabama, Marriage Record Book 1: 1.

[3] Madison County, Alabama, Marriage Record Book 6: 7, Walker-Reaves, 1871; Madison County Records Center,  Huntsville.

[4] Madison County, Alabama, Marriage Record Book 66: 1, Tumpkin-Douglas, 1936: Madison County Records Center, Huntsville.


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Missing Records Returned to Madison County, Alabama!

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.

Example of a ledger page from an unknown merchant near Brownsboro, Alabama Photo copyright: Angela Lucas

Example of a ledger page from an unknown merchant near Brownsboro, Alabama
Photo copyright: Angela Lucas

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.

A page from Circuit Court Minute Book, 1818-1819, Madison County, Alabama Photo copyright: Angela Lucas

A page from Circuit Court Minute Book, 1818-1819, Madison County, Alabama
Photo copyright: Angela Lucas

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;  If you have a Facebook account, you can also search 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  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.
  • Forget the overdue fine: Library thrilled to get Madison County courthouse records missing 60 years [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.]

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Kentucky Confederate Pension Files

While exploring digitized records today, I stumbled upon a wonderful treat: Confederate pension application files at the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives (KDLA) website.  Pension applications are a wonderful resource for genealogy with sometimes surprising biographical information, and these are no exception.  Kentucky has some applications that are quite detailed and lengthy.  Often there are affidavits from family members and neighbors, giving great insight to the lives of these veteran ancestors and providing us with a more complete picture of their struggles than we ordinarily get with just the dry facts.

Digitizing records is slow and laborious, and I appreciate KDLA’s efforts to make these records public.  To access this ongoing project, go to the KDLA website and look for the e-archives link on the right-hand side of the page.  Here is the URL:


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John Mosby Binford’s 1826 Will, Madison County, Alabama

Page 1 of John Mosby Binford's 1826 will, on file at the Madison County Records Center in Huntsville, Alabama

Page 1 of John Mosby Binford’s 1826 will, on file at the Madison County Records Center in Huntsville, Alabama

Here is my transcription of John Mosby Binford’s 1826 will, which names several enslaved persons from Madison County, Alabama.  The original is on file in the Madison County Records Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

State of Alabama Madison County

I John M Binford being of sound mind & memory do make & ordain this my last will & testament & do dispose of what worldly goods it has pleased God to bless me with in the manner and form following.

Item I give & bequeath to my son John M. Binford the following negroes to wit. Austin, Peter, Dick, Stepney, Moll, Aladela, Viny & her two children, Lydia, also choice of the work horses that are now in the possession of James Malon [Malone] of Limestone County A.l.a.  the whole of my Land lying in Northhampton County State of North Carolina that is at this time unsold , all my notes & outstanding debts.  I give my grandson William L. Turner son of Thomas Turner one small negro girl named Matilda.  I give to Thomas Turner Snr– one negro woman named Pattey.  I give to my Daughter Eliza F.H. Malone one negro woman Charlotte & her four children.  I give to my grand Daughter Lucy Stith Binford daughter of Addison Binford one negro girl named Bicki.  I give my son Addison Binford one Bead [bed] & funature [furniture]my Man called Crane this condition that my son Peter Binford have half the Coalt [colt] that the mare is now infold  with.  I also give to Peter Binford my Riding Horse call’d George.  I give my grand Son John Binford son of Abner H. Binford one negro woman Clary & her two children together with her increase to him his Heirs forever.

My will is that my House servant Lurana shall be sold on two years credit one half of the purchase money for s’d [said] negro to be paid in twelve months from the date of the sale & the other half of the purchase money to be paid at the end of Two years baring [bearing] Interest from the time the first half of the purchase money is  to be paid by the legatees only.  I  give  lend to Peter Binford in trust two negroes to wit Emaline & Isaac which negroes it is my will & desire that Rebecah Anne Bass of Northampton County North Carolina who is Ten years old next March, shall have when she arrives to the age of Eighteen years or marries the said Peter Binford as trustee limiting to said Rebecah Anne Bass the Hire of said Negroes.

I give to my grand Daughter Susan L. Binford Daughter of Peter Binford one negro girl name’d Caroline to her & her Heirs forever in testimony of the above I have hereunto set my Hand this second day of February 1826.

Jno M Binford

[witnesses signed below]

James G. Bell

Matha [Martha] Capell

I hereby make this Codicil to the above my last will & Testament revoking all other heretofore by me made.  Item I give my son Peter Binford four Hundred Dollars to be paid out of the monies arising from the sale of my House servant Lurana; Item I give to Mary Frances Burton Daughter of William M. Burton one negro Boy nam’d Minton.  I give to my son John M. Binford my silver spoons & all my furnature not heretofore by me mention’d.  I hereby appoint my son Peter Binford & Thomas Turner my Executors to this my last will & testament this third day of February 1826.

Jno M. Binford[1]

Mrtha [Martha] Capel [Capell]

James G. Bell

[The following appears on one of the outer folds of the will in the clerk’s handwriting:]

The State of Alabama:

County court of Madison county this 11th day of March 1826—

The last will and testament of John M Binford deceased was this day produced in open court and the execution thereof with the codicil thereto annexed as to the perishable & personal property contained therein being duly proven by the oaths of Martha Capell & James G Bell the subscribing witnesses thereto was ordered to be recorded &e which is duly done this 15th day of March 1826—

Thos [Thomas] Brandon Clk [Clerk]

[The following appears vertically on another outer fold of the will in the clerk’s handwriting:]


Jon M Binfords


Recorded & Ex__d [Executed?]

I [In?] will Bok [Book] no 3

[1] Madison County, Alabama probate file 1533, will, John M. Binford; Madison County Records Center, Huntsville.


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Lawrence County Archives

698 Main St., Moulton, Alabama

698 Main St., Moulton, Alabama

I recently visited the Lawrence County Archives in Moulton, Alabama to conduct research for a client needing help with his Bradley and Brown ancestors from the tiny community of Wolf Springs in the northwestern part of Lawrence County. Housed in a former bank building just off the courthouse square, this little archives is a hidden gem. The building itself was built in 1939 and still retains its retro charm inside with original trim and art deco hardware. It even has the old bank safe, which is still used today by the archivists on staff and provides an odd source of conversation.

Look closely and you can see "Bank of Moulton" across the top front of the building.

Look closely and you can see “Bank of Moulton” across the top front of the building.

I had a lovely lunch at a quirky downtown cafe in Moulton called Lang’s Latte Cafe. The name caught my eye because it reminded me of my Lang relatives in northern Minnesota, some of whom ran small cafes and even bars in small prairie towns near the Canadian border. After lunch, I walked around the square and returned to my starting point, where I spent the afternoon combing through records at the Lawrence County Archives.   Some of their records date back to 1818 before Alabama became a state.  A list of their holdings can be found on their easy-to-navigate website: http://www.


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