Category Archives: Online Resources

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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Should I hire a professional genealogist?

Let’s face it; genealogy is a time-consuming activity.  Perhaps you are one who has tried searching for your family history.  Maybe you’re the only one in the family who has even cared to ask the questions, and you don’t know where to start.  Or, you’ve started and enjoyed it, but you have hit the proverbial “brick wall.”  Now what?

Brick walls.  We all have them.  You also have a busy life; do you put it all on hold while you tromp around to archives and cemeteries, and do you let the dust bunnies gather while you sit for hours looking online?  Hiring a professional genealogist may be your answer.

Many hobbyists worry that they cannot afford to hire someone to do all that digging.  It’s cheaper and more entertaining to do it yourself, you say.  Entertaining, yes….but cheaper, maybe not.  First of all, travel is costly.  Hiring a professional genealogist is usually cheaper than the money you spend going to all those far-flung places where your ancestors landed, only to find that the archives are closed that day, along with the church, the library, and wherever else you wanted to go.  Hiring someone in the area is cheaper than plane fare, hotel fees, car rentals, parking, and meals in some distant town.  They know the area, too, which puts them at an advantage.  Also, professionals already have those expensive subscriptions your wish to all the fee-based websites you wish you had access to but don’t.  They have already paid for the training you have not had time, money, and/or inclination to receive.   Also, who is paying the bills while you spend hours on the computer looking for dead relatives?  That is, if you can even find the bills under the piles of papers that your genealogy habit has created.

Professionals know where things are.  Do you know which agency in your state keeps the birth, marriage, and death certificates?  Maybe it is the health department for the births and deaths, but the marriages are at the courthouse after such-and-such a date, but in the state archives otherwise.  Or, maybe you know where these records are in your state–after all, you’ve been doing this on your own for a while–but your ancestors did not stay put.  They moved to another state with different ways of keeping records and different laws for various things.  What about those pesky court records, tax records, land records?  Believe me, most are not online.  They are in dusty back rooms in busy courthouses far from home.  If you are just beginning to search your family history, do you even know what’s available?  Professionals know of possibilities that may not have occurred to you.

Professionals are organized people.  Some are laughing now as they read this while looking at all those client files on the desk, but yes…they are experienced and have systems for keeping track of all the details.  They have the temperament for this kind of work, or they wouldn’t be doing it.  Do you have the patience, time, and organizational skills?  Maybe you just want to know the story of your ancestors without spending nights and weekends doing all the work yourself.

Maybe you just got that online subscription as a gift, and you are thoroughly enjoying it while the house falls down around you.  What about the family tree you found online with the same ancestors as yours?  Can you trust them?  Professional genealogists will supply you with all the sources they used in your project so that you know it is documented.  They rely on data, not Aunt Maybelle’s intuition.

Well, maybe you say you don’t care about documentation.  You should.  Perhaps Grandpa wasn’t really the son of John Smith; he was John Smith’s second wife’s young cousin being raised by J. C. Smith and his wife, Mary.  Or was she Polly?  Maybe she was both because Polly was a nickname for Mary.  Fine.  Now, is that  J.C. Smith a direct ancestor of yours?  Maybe…or maybe not.

That’s not to say that family trees online are not accurate.  Some are the result of many years of hard work by a diligent researcher, one who cares a great deal about the accuracy of his or her own pedigree.  That person put it online, but then some distant cousin snagged the information and merged it with their own tangled mess of misspelled names and simply wrong birthdates.  Now what?

A good starting place for finding a professional is on the website of the Association of Professional Genealogists , or see a list of genealogists at the Board for Certification of Genealogists .  Also, most state and local genealogical societies have websites nowadays, and many of them maintain lists of professionals in their areas, often with a statement of each genealogist’s special interests.  I hope you will at least consider the possibility that you do not have to do every bit of research on your own to still have fun with your family history.  A professional is likely to ask you for a specific goal for starters, so you can hand over the gnarly brick wall ancestor while you tackle some other part of your tree.  Or, you can simply have a life among the living while a professional helps to solve the puzzles of the past.

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Posted by on Thursday, January 24, 2013 in Genealogy, Online Resources, Professional Genealogy


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Canada’s 1921 Census

Yes, I know this blog is mainly about southern research, but with the increased use of transcontinental trains and eventually cars came a myriad of migration possibilities for our ancestors.  Many of us in the US and beyond have some connection with Canada, and knowing how to do research there is critical.  Where do we often start in our American research?  Why, the census, of course!  The same is true in Canada.  That said, I am pleased to report that the long-awaited release of the 1921 Canada census will be on June 1, 2013.  I can hardly wait!

As with the United States, the census was taken in Canada every 10 years, but unlike the US, the Canada census fell during the years ending with “1”: 1851, 1861, and so on, up to 1911.  In some of the provinces, particularly in the west, there were extra censuses taken during those in-between years such as 1906 and 1916.  These have been released; however, Canada’s privacy laws are stricter than ours and require a lapse of 92 years between the time of the census and its release.  So much migration was occuring in the early 20th century with the advent of the “motor car” and the industrial age with its increasingly urban lifestyles; it can be a challenge to track ancestors with all of this moving around!  Sometimes my research leads me to Canada’s records, but finding anything after 1916 to “connect the dots” is tough.  So, after a long and somewhat impatient wait, I know what I will be doing on the computer next June!

Photograph taken by Angela Lucas in July 1973 at Emerson, Manitoba

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Posted by on Wednesday, July 25, 2012 in Online Resources


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1940 Census: Southern States Added

The 1940 U.S. Federal Census is still in the process of being indexed; however, many states have been completed and their searchable indexes are available online.  This includes the following southern states: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

While all states are online, the indexes are an invaluable time-and-sanity saver.  One free source is  As of 12 July 2012, the following states are indexed:


Just when you think you know everything about your immediate family, the 1940 census can yield some interesting surprises.  Some of the information includes:

  • the family’s residence in 1935, their address (name of street and house number)
  • employment information for persons age 14 and older, income earned in 1939 and number weeks employed full-time in 1939
  • whether the home was on a farm or not
  • value of home and whether it was rented or owned
  • race
  • those absent from household denoted with “Ab”

The 1940 census also asked supplementary questions to provide a random sample of about 5 percent of the population. These were usually, but not always, asked of people enumerated on lines 14 and 29.  Some of those questions included:

•birthplace of mother and father

•native language

•veteran status (including widow or minor child of a veteran)

•Social Security details

•occupation, industry, and class of worker

•marriage information for women (married more than once, age at first marriage, number of children

If the state you need is not indexed yet, don’t despair.  There are ways to find the enumeration district if you know some basic information about the family’s location.  Then, it is a matter of scrolling through the pages to find your family.  This is easier to do in a small town rather than a large city, but it can be done.  Or, you can wait for the index to be completed.

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Posted by on Wednesday, July 18, 2012 in Online Resources


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Maple Hill Cemetery, Huntsville, Alabama

Maple Hill Cemetery is a wonderful place full of history, large trees, poignant stories, and colorful characters.  Established in 1822, it is the oldest and largest cemetery in Huntsville, Alabama.  If you have ancestors in that area, chances are they may be buried at Maple Hill.

Maple Hill Cemetery in October 1982

To search the online database of over 21, 000 names, go to the City of Huntsville’s website:

You can also try

I have frequented Maple Hill Cemetery and am more than willing to take photographs or do research on the families interred there.  You can inquire about this service by selecting the “Contact Me” tab and sending me an email.  I would love to have an excuse to wander through this historic landmark!


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Alabama’s State Archives

The Alabama Department of Archives and History, located in Montgomery, has a wonderful collection of records that are a valuable resource for anyone conducting research in Alabama.  Their website, , has a searchable database of records.  It also has a comprehensive list of links to online Alabama resources, maps, and other goodies.  Located at 624 Washington Avenue, the archives is open Monday through Friday and one Saturday each month.  Check it out!

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Posted by on Tuesday, July 10, 2012 in Online Resources


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