The DAR, The WPA, and Your Southern Ancestry

  The Daughters of the American Revolution in Eastern Tennessee, caught in the Great Depression, sought a way to continue their  projects.  They were extremely active in collecting vital records, family Bible entries, county records–whatever would identify the lives of descendants of those who fought so valiantly for freedom and liberty in Tennessee.

Penelope Johnson Allen and Mary Hardin McCown, DAR leaders,  negotiated with the Works Progress Administration established by the federal government to bring income to workers who were out of jobs.  A major program was rescuing local records from destruction–organizing and inventorying the county and city records, transcribing and indexing those record categories deemed especially valuable.

The DAR already had decided what was valuable, and they had created a ready-made workforce to do the job.  They needed the federal dollars to put their corps of women to work.  Mary Hardin McCown, in the Introduction to Washington County Tax Lists, 1778-1801; Abstract of Washington County Minutes Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions, 1778-1801; Lists of Officers of Washington County, 1778-1801; and Miscellaneous Records in Washington County, described the miracle of finding the 1778 list of taxables “in a coal skuttle, where it had most likely been tossed as wastepaper.

“It is in the form of a small pamphlet, with pages hand-sewn together, and written in the Spencerian long-hand style of the first Sheriff–Valentine Sevier (brother of John Sevier).  It is his copy of those lists which the Assessors turned in to him of those inhabitants of the Washington County of 1778, which extended from the Virginia line to the great river-Mississippi.

“From time to time, other lists were discovered among the loose records.  Then in 1935-36, this compiler was fortunate to enlist help through the Tennessee Emergency Relief Administration, with Project #90-F4-54 with six weeks of work and later continued through the Works Progress Administration, Project #65-44-258 for another eight weeks.

“This later project was personally signed and commended by  Franklin D. Roosevelt, and was the first which furnished work for women teachers and secretaries during the depression of the mid-1930’s.  At various times, there were ten women and two men working under my supervision. Entitled “Indexing and Copying Old Records.” this basement vault was literally cleaned up and records filed in the county court clerk’s office. All loose records were sorted and classified, and a complete Inventory made of all books there.

Some 2215 marriage records (both bonds and licenses)–200 of which antedate 1800–were found and filed in the regular Marriage Files, copied into Marriage Book #0, and indexed for both men and women’s names.  Among the volumes compiled were:

  1. A Master Index of the Estates of Washington County 1778-1900.  This was made for both the loose records and for the Inventory and Settlement Books, of which there is a complete file.
  2. A Volume of Miscellaneous Records, containing all those records excepting those in the other two volumes.
  3. Washington County Lists of Taxables 1778-1860 (in which there are many missing links).  This last volume of loose pages, copied in long-hand and bound in an old second-hand ledger file donated by a kind printer, Mr. Pete Muse.  These volumes are in the County Court Clerk’s Office in Washington County, available to researchers today.”  [That is, 17 Nov 1963, when Mary Hardin McCown signed the printed volume of Taxables, 1778-1801.  Note the difference in the dates.]

I recall a research trip I made to Eastern Tennessee, where I visited the public libraries and local bookstores in seven counties.  In each public library, I came across the work of these DAR  women, who used your tax dollars and mine, to prepare indexed and alphabetized transcripts of local records for us.  At first, I was unaware of what the volumes were.  When I asked librarians, most had no clue.

Then I read the “Introduction”  to Penelope Johnson Allen’s, Leaves from the Family Tree.  These were reprinted newspaper columns printed originally in Chattanooga TN.  There I discovered that more than 1,500 volumes of transcribed records and cemetery readings had been completed during this time.

What an Amazing Legacy!

Many of these volumes were deposited eventually in the Archives of Appalachia, Eastern Tennessee University; some of these volumes were microfilmed by the Family History Library and can be found individually cataloged by county.  Some of these volumes are found for sale in local second-hand book stores.  Some of these volumes were acquired by Mountain Press, PO Box 400, Signal Mountain TN 37377-0400.  They will eventually be printed.

If the Tennessee county where your ancestors lived does not have DAR transcripts, put a search on to find them.  These savvy school teachers turned records managers left “Introductions” to the records that are priceless instructions for us today.  Defining terms peculiar to the Tennessee Hills.  Describing the whereabouts of original records that do not appear in the Courthouse now.   Listing the names of those who worked on the projects, so we can search for their personal papers.  Giving the reasons why some records are complete and others are not.

The DAR and the WPA combination in Eastern Tennessee ensured that loss of records needn’t hinder our genealogy progress.  Your favorite genealogist,  Arlene Eakle

PS  Does anyone have an answer as to why only 1778-1801 taxables were published if they did indeed go to 1860?  email me:

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