TN-KY and AL: Research Notes from the Field

I’m back and what a tale I have to tell! The Heritage Center of the Huntsville and Madison County (AL) Public Library is part of an official County Historical Records Center which also includes the Probate Office, the Tax Assessor, and the Registrar of Deeds. When the new library was built, it was deliberately built large enough to accomodate a major genealogy/history section called the Heritage Center and some 12,000 square feet “to be filled in the future.”

The future is here and those 12,000 square feet are now filled with the historical records of Madison County AL–those sources most often requested by genealogists.
“To an historian [and we would add to a genealogist] libraries are food, shelter, even muse. They are of two kinds: the library of published material, books, pamphlets, and periodicals, and the archive of unpublished papers and documents.” Barbara Tuchman, Practicing History, 1981 from the Quotable Book

In Madison County, both kinds are combined into one facility, and the parking is still free.

The government-funded Historical Records Survey–remember the WPA projects where out-of-work office personnel inventoried and indexed county records as a job opportunity during the Great Depression–was manned with DAR ladies in Tennessee. Under the direction of Penelope Johnson Allen, Tennessee DAR members transcribed more than 1500 volumes of local county and town records. These volumes are not easy to find–for many of them were scattered throughout the state in public and private libraries. Some volumes even ended up in used bookstores for sale.

One such bookstore in Elizabethtown (Washington County), drew their attention to James Douthat of Mountain Press. And over the past few years, he has printed several of the volumes for East Tennessee so they could be purchased by public library genealogy rooms where you and I could search them. We owe a debt of gratitude to both the foresight of Mrs. Allen and her crew of transcribers and to James Douthat for preserving their work. These volumes include every-name indexes to the court records for many Tennessee counties.

One of my most difficult search projects in Tennessee is the Ashford family. This relatively rare and often obscure family went from Virginia and South Carolina through North Carolina, into Tennessee, and finally to Texas. Fitting the George Ashfords into the right generation of the family is my big challenge–part of the 4% I have not yet solved. The WPA transcripts in the Huntsville Heritage Center and the Adams Memorial Library in Woodbury TN (Cannon County) indexed George Ashford in several volumes of court records. I expect to crack this lineage with these entries!

At the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort–they are in a brand new state-of-the-art building–I searched the Family Files for a whole list of surnames. These files have been or are still being microfilmed by the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. They are not yet listed in the Library Catalog so they can be searched on film. The Kentucky Historical Society is preparing a surname list to go online. Plans have also been announced by the Kentucky Genealogical Society to create an online, every-name index to these hundreds and hundreds of files.

On the back of each page is stamped the date when that document is microfilmed. In several files, however, there were pages not stamped–you see, these are active files with documents being added every week. So I went there to search them in person: Family Bible pages, research letters of inquiry sent to the Historical Society and the answers supplied by Society personnel, obituaries, pedigree charts and family groups, pages copied from familiy histories, copies of census records, deeds and other sources. Each file is a mish-mash of information–you never know what you will find.

Each library I visited on my two week-trip had family files. Some were pristine and very neatly labelled. Some were dog-eared and bent. All of them supplied valuable entries for the surnames on my list. Library personnel do not have the time to photo-copy all the pages in a file or to read each document to see if it applies to the family in question. You either have to access the files on film through the LDS library system, go to the library yourself, or hire a researcher to search the files for you.

It is well worth the effort, because their contents can save years of searching through records one by one looking for the origins of the family and the names of the parents.

I won’t kid you. Some pages are devoid of source references. Some are filled with speculation. All provide clues for further research. And many include original sources which cannot be found in any other place.

So if you haven’t searched family files in the counties where your ancestors lived, in counties along the migration routes your ancestors travelled, and in those counties where relatives of your ancestors are most likley to end up, you may be missing the very data your lineage requires.

Tennessee and Kentucky were the California of their days of settlement–ancestors from the South, from New England, from Canada, from New York-New Jersey-Delaware-Pennsylvania settled here, for a time, before sending family into counties West. Almost every family is represented in these collections. And if a modern family member moves into these states today, and leaves their genealogy records to the library, your ancestors may be found there–even if they did not live there during their own lifetime!

Next week, I’ll outline for you, my search strategy for tracing hard-to-find ancestors in the Southern United States. It works every time–if the sources are there, this stategy will find the guy. And this strategy is worth the price my clients pay for me to research their most difficult research challenges. Tune in 4 Sep to learn for yourself what it is that I do. Your favorite genealogist, Arlene Eakle
(P.S. I am writing this at midnight on the 28th, so it can be posted on time. My flight arrived on time late Monday evening, I drove home, and sat down to type this episode for you. Enjoy!)

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One Response to TN-KY and AL: Research Notes from the Field

  1. arlene says:

    Correction (with some embarrassment and gratitude to have it corrected):
    ?James Pylant of Mountain Press? has been corrected to read James Douthat. Please accept my apologies. I know the difference between the two men and use the works of both in my research. Actually, we owe a debt of gratitude to James Pylant as well. His website is on my own list of favorites. You can reach him at P.O. Box 1587, Stephenville TX 76401. Arlene Eakle

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