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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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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:   http://www.huntsvilleal.gov/gis/Cemetery/cemetery.htm.

You can also try http://www.findagrave.com/.

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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Huntsville Depot

This photo of the Huntsville [Alabama] Depot, entitled,”Captured by Union Forces,” was published about 1962 in a local newspaper.  The caption under the photo says, “Huntsville’s railway depot, site of the capture of locomotives and railway cars by Federal troops 100 years ago, still stands.  Forces under Union Gen. Ormsby M. Miller cut the strategic Memphis and Charleston Railroad at Huntsville Friday, April 11, 1862.”

My mother intended to mail this clipping to my grandmother in Minnesota because she sometimes visited Alabama by train, and our family picked her up at this depot on those much-awaited visits.  Built in the 1850s by the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, the Huntsville Depot not only served the public with passenger train service, but also served as the company’s corporate offices for its eastern division.  It boasted a large and lavish lobby that was used as a waiting area for passenger train travel.

The depot opened in 1860 shortly before the Civil War began.  During the 1862 capture, the Union soldiers not only took control of a very strategic point on the rail line, but they also detained Confederates as prisoners and kept them on the third floor.  One of the most fascinating scenes inside the depot today is the wall of graffiti left by those Confederate prisoners!

The U.S. government returned the depot to the Memphis & Charleston Railroad in disrepair after the Civil War, but the company was able to eventually resume its passenger service after a period of rebuilding.  Many greetings and goodbyes took place here over the years.  Passenger service at the Huntsville Depot ended in 1968.  It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 and on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage in 2002.  The depot now serves as a transportation museum and a symbol of Huntsville’s historic growth from a small cotton town to a center of space technology.

Huntsville Depot in 2010

 

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