Category Archives: Preservation

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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Georgia Archives to Remain Open…For Now

Imagine having no state archives open to the public for research.  What a sad day in the genealogy world!  That is what the people of Georgia were facing until recently….and may face again in 2013.  The office of Georgia’s governor, Nathan Kemp, announced last month that the Georgia State Archives in Morrow, GA will remain open for the remainder of the budgetary year that ends on June 30, 2013.  It will keep its current hours, which are already limited to just Fridays and Saturdays.  On July 1, the archives will be transferred to the University System of Georgia.  What then?  Will it be by appointment only?

Think of all the valuable materials to be relocated and the care which must be taken in this situation.  What if the documents that prove your ancestor ever existed on Georgia soil are not available to you because of budget cuts?  Hopefully, it will not be a worst-case scenario.  The press release from the governor’s office did indicate that the transfer provides for the appropriation of funds for operation and staffing; however, just the thought of losing access to the archives makes many genealogists and other researchers very nervous.  If it can happen in Georgia, it can happen elsewhere.

If you live in a place in which your state archives and other repositories are open several days a week with no plans to close anytime soon, consider yourself fortunate.


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The Great Photo Sort: Part 1

“All these pictures have gotten out of hand.  I’m going to organize them once and for all!”

Sound familiar?  We make these sweeping declarations and start out with high hopes until life intervenes.  Organizing the family history documents and photographs can be tricky, not to mention time-consuming, and every genealogist has their own way of doing things.  For me, first organizing documents and notes by my 8 great-grandparents’ surnames was a great place to begin.  I created a system of files and binders sorted by those surnames, sometimes with subcategories.  Sorting and preserving the family pictures was the next natural step.

For photos, I decided at first to use a similar filing system that I used for documents and notes, but I wanted to keep the photos separate from the papers because the paper can degrade the old photographs.  Some photos were with the documents and some were in various places such as photo boxes and tucked in between pages of photo albums–not attached but just tucked inside, so if I lifted the photo album a certain way, they slid out!  Is this how I treat something I value?  Some of those photographs are originals, onlys, one-of-a-kind mementos of my ancestors.  Enough!  So, the Great Photo Sort began.

 Where to start?  It was overwhelming.  The first hurdle was to pull all the photos together in one central location and to just begin with a manageable amount: one box, one folder, one album, one drawer.   It was time to dive in, but I had to draw a line somewhere, so I decided to focus first on loose photographs–those not attached to album pages. The attached ones would have to wait.

I thought I’d have eight piles for the great-grandparents’ surnames, but it turned out that I had many photos of a few family lines and almost none of the others.  So, I switched to just the four grandparents’ lines.  Something I had not anticipated were the many photos of friends, neighbors, and scenery.  Keep or toss?  Those became new piles to deal with later….not indefinitely, but later.  That’s part of the reason why this post is subtitled Part 1.

The second challenge was to go quickly without stopping to analyze every picture except to decide on a surname pile in which to place it.  There were many photos that went into the I-don’t-know pile.  I knew that getting sidetracked would be my downfall if I went that route, so I kept going until the all the loose photos were sorted.  The process did take several days, but I was willing to live with the mess temporarily.  Occasionally, I did pause to study a photo before finally admitting that I still did not know who the people were.

The third step was to call my sister, my genealogy buddy, for help with the I-don’t-know pile.  Genealogy can be a solitary pursuit, but it sure helps to have a buddy in the family with the same interest!  It’s especially handy if that person lives in the same town.  Together, we were able to figure out to which surname pile most of the unknowns should go.  Then we made a separate pile to show an older relative on the next visit.  (Action item on the do-list: plan that visit soon!)  My sister also had stories about some of the relatives in the pictures, which turned an ordinary afternoon into a most memorable one.  With her encouragement, I was able to let go of some unknown friends and blurry vacation photos.  To let go meant to actually throw away.  I did keep the ones of interesting scenes, such as the ones my parents took of an unfinished Mt. Rushmore on a trip to South Dakota, and others I thought may one day be useful for placing family and events in certain locations.

I needed to wind down The Great Photo Sort: Part 1 so I could use my kitchen table again and of course, to have a feeling of success for getting this far.  There were so many pictures in a few of the surname piles that I decided to sort them by decades—1910s, 1920s, and so on. I put them into acid-free photo boxes by one surname or two, depending on quantity.  Now I had my pictures organized somewhat chronologically.  The system wasn’t perfect yet, but at least it was now somewhat useful for research instead of just a mess.

Old photographs can be an amazing wealth of information.  As a genealogist, I could not do a careful analysis with my pictures all in a jumble.  I noticed during the Great Photo Sort that there were names, dates, and even addresses on the backs of some photos, which caused me to say a silent thanks to the ancestral angel in heaven that wrote such captions!  Was I finished?  No, not by a long shot, but I had the satisfaction of knowing that I was well on my way.  I knew I needed to go back later to write on the backs of unlabeled photos, to study and make notes, and to decide what to do with those old, falling-apart, photo-damaging albums of the past.  My intention was to create a new, safe, and logical way to display all the photographs, preferably in archival-quality albums.  In the meantime I had created a huge sense of accomplishment and a handy system.  I also reclaimed my kitchen table!

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Posted by on Tuesday, July 3, 2012 in Genealogy, Photographs, Preservation


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