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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;  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.
  • 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.]
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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:]

                                                                                1533

Jon M Binfords

Will

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. lawrencecoarchives.com.

 

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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 http://www.apgen.org/ , or see a list of genealogists at the Board for Certification of Genealogists http://www.bcgcertification.org/associates/index.php .  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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Indian Springs 1949: What Old Photos Can Tell Us

Old family vacation photos may seem boring to some, but I find them to be interesting clues to a family’s location, leisure activities, and socio-economic status.  Many families, including my own, worked long, hard hours with little time to spare for lengthy, expensive trips far away from home.  While tracing one branch of my family’s movements in the first half of the 20th century, I began to take a closer look at the dates and locations on the backs of the pictures for clues.  Of course, several photos had nothing, but many had a stamp from the developer or a handwritten notation.

In my grandmother’s things was a series of photos taken at Indian Springs State Park in Flovilla, GA.  The series features grainy shots of my grandmother with her daughter, grandchildren, and a niece.  The pictures of the relatives are not that spectacular; their faces are barely recognizable.  If it weren’t for the comments on the back, it would be hard to tell who’s who.  What is interesting to me is that the July 1949 date corresponds with oral stories of the family being in the Atlanta area at the time.  A short trip with “the kids” to the cool spring waters of a nearby state park makes sense because it puts the family in that area in time, doing a low-budget but enjoyable activity.

Indian Springs, Georgia
July 1949

My favorite snapshot is the old mill, taken in July 1949:

I love the quirky messages on the backs of old photos.  Here is the back of the photo above, in what appears to be my grandmother’s handwriting:

“The old mill (The wheel wouldn’t be turning when we got our picture!)
Indian Spgs – 1949

Not only do I have another clue about the family’s location in 1949, I also hear my grandmother’s voice in the tongue-in-cheek comment about the water wheel not turning.  Sometimes it’s good to just enjoy the hunt for clues and the surprises that come along.  The genealogical proof standards and citation-writing can wait for another day.

 
 

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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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Tennessee State Library and Archives

Tennessee State Libary and Archives in Nashville

Back in August of this year, I spent six productive hours in downtown Nashville at the Tennessee State Library and Archives, located at 403 7th Ave. N, between the state capitol and the judicial building.  I knew it was going to be a good day when a parking space right in front of the archives was open!  Parking is limited; I fully expected to have to find a public parking lot and walk, which I was willing to do, but being able to park in one of the few spaces available on weekdays was an added bonus.  The friendly and helpful staff was ready to answer all questions and to give assistance.  I was lucky enough to snag one of the newer microfilm readers that allows patrons to save documents to a flash drive; however, I came prepared with my roll of quarters for the copier, just in case.

I did my homework ahead of time by first going to their detailed website at http://www.tn.gov/tsla.  I was interested in Greene County records, and the website had a 27-page list of all the microfilms for that county.  Had I not seen this online, I could have used the list on display at the archives.  Also, the website has a great “Visitors’ Guide” section.

After a great meal at Noshville, and New York-style deli in Midtown located at 1918 Broadway, it was time to drive by the Parthenon in Centennial Park.  Nashville’s Parthenon is an excellent replica of the famous Parthenon in Athens, Greece.  On this beautiful summer afternoon, the park was busy but not crowded, as visitors rode bicycles or walked the paths and across the green spaces.  A few folks were sitting on the Parthenon’s steps as we drove by.

Nashville’s Parthenon

I look forward to another short trip to the state archives Nashville soon and will be happy to research your Tennessee ancestors for you.  Just send me an email from my “Contact Me” tab at the top of my blog.

 
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Posted by on Monday, November 12, 2012 in Places of Interest, Repositories, Tennessee history

 

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