Who’s Your Daddy? Bastardy Records

LOC, LC-DIG-ppmsca-86

LOC, LC-DIG-ppmsca-86

One of the hidden gems inside court records are the aptly named “Bastardy Bonds” and Bastardy cases in general.  Genealogy is a constant reminder that human beings have not changed. Anything that happens now also happened in the past, and one of the most common occurrences was having children out of wedlock (or in wedlock, just not with the mother of the child.)

I’m sure all of us have seen an ancestor who appears with a child on a census whose paternity is unknown. To keep these children from becoming burdens on the county dime, the fathers of these children had to post bond that they would care for the child.  This is yesteryear’s version of child support, so to speak. Sadly, for a very long time, being born in that circumstance caused a fair amount of shame to be heaped upon both mother and child (though oddly, not the man. The words “bastard” and “illegitimate” in historic records still make me cringe when I see them.

The record below is a “bastardy recognizance” for Dennis Waters of Somerset County, MD in 1893:

Dennis Waters

Dennis Waters

The record notes the birth of a “female illegitimate child” that was born “the 6th of May last” to Kate Ward. If that child was your ancestor, you’d have an exact birthdate pre-dating the state birth records. The record also associates Wesley Hall and Levin H. Waters with Dennis, to secure the bond of $80. That gives us two people to add to Dennis’ “cluster”–they are likely close friends or family members. These records for Maryland were recorded (oddly) in the deed records.

Here’s a record from North Carolina, which has one of the best collections of this type. It is against William Baker in September 1892. Isabella Battle charges that he did “seduce and begat her with child under the promise that he would marry her”:

North Carolina Bastardy1

North Carolina Bastardy1

If Sank Summerlin was your ancestor, you’d be glad to have found this 1894 North Carolina case. It names all four of the children and provides their ages:

Sank Summerlin

Sank Summerlin

And lastly, this record showed that some men denied the charges. In this North Carolina case, the Walter Wallace lost  and had to pay court fees, post bond and pay fines in addition to other charges. I wonder how they established paternity back then? It’s not like they had DNA test kits like we do:

NC Bastardy Case 3

NC Bastardy Case 3

I’ve seen these records in Maryland, Tennessee and North Carolina, but I’m sure they appear in the records of other states. Another thing I’ve always wondered is who brought the action? Was it the mother? Was it a local official? A nosy neighbor?

It reminds me of that old phrase, “Mother’s baby, daddy’s…. maybe.”


A Walk Through County Court Minutes


Old James City VA Courthouse, Library of Congress Photograph

Old James City VA Courthouse, Library of Congress Photograph

Have you ventured into the waters of county court records yet? Everyone who reads this blog regularly knows I am a big fan of court records. Today, I’d like to walk you through the kinds of things you can find in county court records.

As I’ve mentioned before, court records are an intermediate/advanced resource—I wouldn’t recommend them for beginners. Save them for later. Court records can be complex because (1) there are separate state and federal systems, (2) courts in each state often have different names (3) courts exist in a hierarchy, and (4) the names of various courts have changed over time. And, if that’s not bad enough, (5) court records exist in different formats, like dockets, minutes and loose papers. Yikes.

For example, here’s a (current day) hierarchy of the court in Delaware (courtesy of the National Center for State Courts website):

Delaware Courts

Delaware Courts

Take a look at how different the court structure is in Florida:

Florida State Courts

Florida State Courts

As you can see described inside the boxes, each different court hears specific types of cases (its “jurisdiction”).

When I say “County Court,” I am referring the lowest court in a state’s court hierarchy—the one in which most citizens would first file a cause of action. But beware—that court may not be named “County Court.”

Step number one would be to find out what the County Court was named in your state of research for the period of time you are researching. To do that, you’ll need to find  a history of the court system in that state. Some places to search for this information are: the state archives website, the website for the state’s current-day court website, Google, FamilySearch Wiki, and Ancestry’s Red Book, which is available for viewing on Ancestry. Here is an example of court history in Tennessee from the state archives, and there is a discussion of North Carolina court history at FamilySearch’s Wiki.

The Tennessee link tells me that after 1834, the lowest court in Tennessee was in fact called the “County Court.” (In North Carolina, by comparison, the lowest court was called the “Court of Common Pleas and Quarter Sessions”). If that were my research state, Step two would be to find out where you can access the records–it may be the local courthouse, the state archives, or maybe you can order microfilm from the Family History Library containing those records. Remember in all cases, to call first to find out what is available and what restrictions may be in place, if any. You probably won’t be among the lucky to find county court minutes online, like the ones transcribed online for Tyler County, TX, the images at Southhampton County, Va and the court order books for Amelia County, VA. But you never know unless you look. Genealogists are a generous people.

I’m going to show examples from County Court Minutes–these are the (usually) brief records of everyday business of the local court. Most are indexed, either in the front or back, but it’s not uncommon to come across some volumes that are not indexed.

The County Court was the place where a hodge podge of information was recorded, and what I enjoy most about these records is that you really get a good picture of the town; the prominent people, the paupers, the merchants and doctors, the lawyers, etc. Exact contents of each county court’s records will vary by state and time period, but here’s a list of things routinely recorded at the County Court:

  • appointment of road crews to maintain roads (road “overseers”)
  • appointment of tax collectors, sheriffs, constables and jurists
  • appointment of men to work on slave patrols

    slave patrol-Tyler Cty, TX

    slave patrol-Tyler Cty, TX

  • appointment of an estate administrator or executor
  • proving of wills and deeds

    deeds proved-Southhampton, VA

    deeds proved-Southhampton, VA

  • appointment of men to appraise an estate
  • providing a widow provisions or her dower after the death of her husband
  • appointment of guardians for orphans
  • payments to jailers for keeping runaway slaves and other functions
  • payments to tax collectors and road surveyors
  • payments for people to help the poor (paupers)
  • petitions for building new roads, bridges or mills
  • apprenticeships
  •  licensing of merchants (for taverns, ministers, lawyers, etc.)
  • taxes assessments and payments
  • people being released from paying taxes because of age

    release from taxes-Southampton Cty., VA

    release from taxes-Southampton Cty., VA

  • “illegitimate” children, often called “baseborn,” are usually apprenticed out, parents usually named (but remember, no DNA testing back then):
  • civil court cases, usually name claimant/defendant, jurors and outcome of case

There’s a very good chance that your ancestor shows up somewhere in these records. Of special interest to those researching African-American families is that free blacks are often found in these records, as in many places they had to register with the court as a free person:

free negro registration

free negro registration

I found mention of my 4th great-grandmother, Margaret Barnes, a free black in Hardin County, TN, in an 1838 entry in the county court minutes, describing how, at about the age of 12 she was taken for her previous “owner” for cruelty and “sold” to another. You may be able to find the name of the person who manumitted (freed) your ancestor or the name of a white person in the community who is vouching for their free status. This is one of the first types of records I suggest for those who have freed black ancestors, and are trying to discover who may have freed the individual (of course, they could have been born free.) Slaves charged with crimes are also mentioned in these records:

slave punishment

slave punishment

So take a walk through your county court records and let me know some of the interesting things you find there.

-Keep in mind that court minutes are dated: the date might be on the top of page 215, for example, and the minutes for that day’s activities might run through page 225. Be sure that when you find an entry of interest, you *go back* until you find the exact date that it was recorded, which may be several pages back. How do I know this? I had to go back several times when I did not copy this information, but it’s crucial for a proper source citation.

-The indexes are not always complete. So, if you really want to be sure someone in particular is not mentioned, you may want to read through each page for a span of time. And—sometimes the index is located in the back of the book. I found that out the hard way too;)

–In the case of counties with burned land records, court minutes, if they survive, can be used to show deed transactions and probate transactions, although they don’t include the details.

–Don’t forget there are plenty of published indexes and abstracts to court records, like the one below. See if any exist for your locality, but if you find something, be sure to request the original record for review.

Court Records Book

Court Records Book

Ancestry.com has a nice primer on Court Records from “The Source”-be sure to read through all of the sections.

Mason and Rachel Garrett: Their Enslaved Past

Mary Garrett

Mary Garrett

My great-grandmother Mary Garrett married John Wesley Holt and they settled in Hardin County, TN and raised a large family. Mary was from neighboring Decatur County, and her mother’s death certificate (whose name was also Mary) indentified her parents as Mason and Rachel Garrett (thus, my Mary’s grandparents).

Mason and Rachel Garrett were easily found on the 1870 and 1880 Decatur County census but the usual strategies for locating their former slaveowner did not work. I noted Mason’s birthplace of Kentucky and his wife’s in South Carolina, as well as the fact that Mason and Rachel both were quite old by 1870. His 70-year old age in that year placed his birthdate around 1800, but other documents provide evidence that he was older than that and likely born in the late 1700s.


1870 Mason and Rachel Garrett

In 2010, I lucked upon a court case that included testimony from Mason and Rachel. I say luck (or perhaps the spirits guiding?) because I was not looking for them in Hardin County, since they resided in Decatur, and because the title of the court case was “NC Davis vs John A. Smith, et al” which would not have garnered even a partial glance. It was luck because an index had been created that named every person in the chancery court records, which is where I first saw their names.

There were over 100 pages of court papers in that file with documents from at least 3 states. The court case was absolutely crucial to my research on this family; it described in detail Mason and Rachel’s lives on the property called Bath Springs and the circumstances of its various owners.

The documents named Mason and Rachel’s former owner as Thomas Jeff Johnson who had died about 1854. The slaves were then owned by his brother, William Johnson, who was killed by “guerillas” in Decatur County in 1863 or 64 during the Civil War. That explained why I could not find any owner in 1870.

There was also the jewel of testimony stating that Thomas Johnson got the slaves from his wife and stepfather. The file included a copy of Thomas Johnson’s will and inventory which was probated 20 March 1854. In it, he named his slaves: Mason, 80, Rachel, 49, Alexander, 22, Mary, 18, Franklin, 16, George, 14, Anna, 5 and William, 12.

Recently, I have peeled back another layer of this onion. Researching family trees at Ancestry.com gave me a prospective family for Thomas Jeff Johnson. He married a woman named Sarah Garrard, whose family was from Kentucky. Now that KY birthplace made sense.  I discovered a book (thank you Google Books) that had been recently published entitled, “James Welborn of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky and His Descendants,” by Gail Jackson Miller. I was able to get copies of the pages that described Sarah’s family and thankfully, they were beautifully footnoted so I could follow where the author got her information. I knew this had to be the genesis of my family—so “Garrett” really started out as “Garrard.” I ordered microfilm reels from the Family History Center and dug in.

If Thomas Johnson’s slaves came from his wife Sarah, it made sense to start the search for Mason and Rachel with William W. Garrard, Sarah’s father, who was from Muhlenberg County, KY. William migrated to Lauderdale County, AL where his family resided for some years. Later, William moved to Hardin County, TN where he died sometime before 1851. His estate inventory, unfortunately, has not been found. However, Ms. Jackson’s footnote led me to something even more valuable: a June 1838 mortgage in Alabama on slaves by William W. Garrard:

6/1838-William W. Garrard to secure a debt to Arnett and Dillahunty, the following slaves: Rachel (black), and her children Daniel, Andrew, Clayton, and an infant, Mason, age 45, and his wife Rachel, age 30, and her children Lucy, Alexander, Mary & Franklin, and boy Cyrus, age 45, and girl Harriett

This was valuable because it included the important phrases, “…and her children” as well as “and his wife,” providing relationships for enslaved people that are almost impossible to find. Even at age 45, Cyrus is still called a “boy.”

When William Garrard came to Hardin County, he generated more deed records– two in 1850 again naming his slaves. After his death, tracts of land were sold in order to pay some of his debts, and it appears some of those slaves were sold as well:

5/8/1850-Power of Attorney to Telemachus Jones to recover slaves in possession of Harrison Stephens of Hardin County… they were purchased from Thomas Lassiter as trustee of William W. Garrard: Rachel, 22 and her son Clayton, Yellow Rachel, abt 22 and her children Alexander, 5, Mary, 8, Franklin, 3, Ellen and Lucy.

5/13/1850-Telemachus Jones of Hardin County, attorney for Henry Dillahunty of Lawrence County, paid $3000 for Alexander, 15, Franklin, 13, Clayton, 13, George, son of yellow Rachel, 9, William, son of yellow Rachel, 7, Joseph, son of black Rachel, 7, yellow Rachel abt 32 and her child Anna, black Rachel, abt. 32 and her child Felix, Mary, 18, Lucy, 22, and Ellen, 12

Notice one Rachel is described as “black” and the other as “yellow” Rachel. Dillahunty was the party to the mortgage in 1838 which means I’ve got to research him thoroughly as well. But these three deeds together effectively identify the children of both Rachels. Also notice the widely varying ages for both Rachels and their children, especially on these last two deeds which are both dated in 1850. By the 1870 census, several of these names are not found living in or near Mason and Rachel’s household, which implies some of their children may well have been sold or died by that time. Part of their family may still be in Lauderdale County, AL. I did however, find the “other” Rachel living in Decatur County in 1870 with the surname “Choat.”

Rachel "Choat"

Rachel “Choat”

I’m going to search every deed transaction William Garrard made, and along with probate, census and tax records, and I hope to paint a clearer picture of Mason and Rachel and their family while they moved from Kentucky through Alabama and finally to Tennessee.  Some members of their family also show birthplaces in Alabama on the census, which again, matches the path of their slaveowner’s movement. Always notice and use those census birthplaces when you see that they are different. I recently gave two lectures on using land records, and this blog post illustrates one way they can be used effectively for slave research.

Stay tuned for more on the Garrard family. I’m hot on their trail!

Criminals In The Family: Joseph Harbour

Joseph Harbour

Every family tree, whether we want to own up to it or not, has its share of criminals, vagabonds, shysters, thieves, polygamists, deserters, roughnecks, liars and cheats. While lots of things change, human behavior doesn’t.

One of my shadier ancestors was Joseph Harbour, my 4th great grandfather, who was born in September 1852 in Hardin County, Tennessee. He actually even looks like he was up to no good, doesn’t he? In the early years of my research, he was a mystery. He only appeared in the 1880 census, married to Hannah Barnes, with two children, Doss and Odie. I assumed he died after that.(I’ve since learned that we must always remember our assumptions and be ready to revisit them in light of new evidence.)

I’ve blogged before about various types of court records, and in my lecture on court records, Joseph is the star. Only when I finally got up enough nerve to venture into local court records did more details about his life emerge. It was amazing to me that this behavior was done during the era of Reconstruction, where racial hatred and violence rose to unprecedented levels.

Joseph Harbour appeared in the criminal court records from at least 1882 to 1897. In 1882, he had been charged with profanity. The court minutes alleged that he stood out in front of a church house and said:

“…let any [insert profanity] man report [me] that wants to and by God it won’t be good for him…I am a [more profanity] on wheels…I dare any man to report me…”

I guess someone called his bluff and actually reported him! Sounds like he may have been drinking to me. The records go on to show that Joseph left his first wife and children to marry another woman, Rachel Shannon. Before his marriage to Rachel, the court charged them both with Lewdness (my mind can only imagine what they were caught doing). Our ancestors were truly reality shows before reality shows came to be! For the next decade, Joseph proved to be a constant presence at the courthouse:

Amazingly, Joseph escaped all the charges with fines, even the more serious charge of attempted manslaughter.

Joseph’s escapades must have caused Rachel to contemplate whether taking Joseph from first wife Hannah was a good idea. By July of 1895, Rachel filed divorce papers against Joseph with the Circuit Court. Their divorce papers detailed a violent and troubled marriage with both charging the other with adultery. In addition, Rachel stated that Joseph “threatened to kill her,” while Joseph responded that “the child born during their marriage was not his child.” Their divorce was granted in 1896, after testimony from witnesses on both sides. I have heard of some crazy divorces in my time, but my goodness!

After the divorce, Joseph Harbour disappeared from the written record in Hardin County, however, some of his descendants remain living in the county today. Let me state for the record, they are lovely, lovely people;)

Now I understand why his first wife Hannah, when asked her marital status in 1900 answered that she was a widow (leading me to believe that for many years). I guess he was dead to her, LOL.

1900 census

Alabama Convict Records

Some months ago, another interesting record set appeared on Ancestry: “Alabama Convict Records, 1886-1952.” I lecture on court records, so these types of records always get extra attention from me. If you watched “Slavery By Another Name” which aired on PBS in February, these type of records will come to mind. If you missed it, you can watch the whole episode online, but I highly recommend reading the book itself, which is much richer. I blogged about this book sometime ago. Also, Bill Moyer’s interview with the author is quite good.

Alabama was one of the worst perpetrators of convict leasing in the decades after the Civil War. Now that I’ve traced my Fendricks and Springer ancestors back to Alabama, I’m on the hunt for record sets to review.

Ancestry includes a some information on the source; these records are state records, ledgers that were filled in by hand with varying degrees of detail. I perused these records for quite sometime. There were whites and blacks convicted, but I’d be curious as to whether the percentage of blacks convicted was higher. I saw a few women and some young teenagers that today, of course, wouldn’t be incarcerated with adults.

Some of the records contain case numbers, and just to satisfy my curiosity I may one day try to find out more information about the crimes they were convicted for. I saw lots of larceny, grand larceny, assault, attempted murder and a few first degree murders. There were men convicted for running distilleries, which must have been rampant. I also saw a young black man convicted of rape, and his entry includes a date of death: I wonder if the rape was for a white woman and whether or not he was lynched? Most of the ones I viewed were eventually released. The prisoners are also referenced as being in certain “camps.”

If you have Alabama ancestors that “disappeared” for a few years, check out these records. There is also a related database on Ancestry called “Alabama Death Record of State Convicts, 1843-1951”. I didn’t find anyone in my family (not yet anyway), but these were still a valuable part of the social history and landscape of our ancestor’s lives.

Here are a few examples of the records I found (click on the image to see it magnified):