I wrote in an earlier post about how much value there is in court records with reference to genealogical research. Now I’ll be the first to tell you, they won’t be in the first wave of record types that a beginning genealogist should approach. They are far to complex to dive into without first having a pretty solid grasp of your target family. But once you’re past the oral interviews and the census and the vital records and the land records and probate and you’re left scratching your face, going, “Hmm……where to next?” then maybe, just maybe, you’re ready to wrestle with this 3000 pound elephant.
My favorite subject to research in court records is slavery. Probably because I’ve had so many “Aha” moments (as Oprah says) using them over the past few years. Slaves were the biggest, most valuable asset most folks had and turns out they fought alot about them. So if you’re at the point where you are targeting a family for potential ownership of your ancestor (or even if you know they owned them already) there’s much to be gained by checking these records. I want to point out something that I sort of “relearned” recently.
I’m helping my godmother Carole with her Hyman family from Martin and Edgecombe Counties, NC. If you are from the area, you’ll find there was a huge white slaveowning Hyman family and one of them likely owned her ancestor, Arden Hyman. We do know, from a marriage record, that our Arden’s father’s name was Zion. You know how we know that? From a subsequent marriage of Arden in 1900 after his wife’s death. That’s 35 years after slavery’s end, but that’s where we found the name of his father while he was enslaved. This illustrates the principle of searching far enough in time both before and after the period you are primarily interested in–with all associated people.
So now we’ve got two slave names we’re looking for. I pulled all Hyman wills in the area, but the will of Kenneth Hyman looked particularly promising because I see he names Zion, and he also owns an Arden. Those aren’t common names like a Mary or a Tom. The will was proved in 1834 and was actually rather brief. While at the North Carolina State Archives (NCSA), I searched all the relevant court books which include the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions as well as Superior Court. The goal is to milk every detail from the Hyman court documents that I can.
The “relearned” lesson came from the Loose Court Records. Those are all the little sheets of paper associated with a court case that are usually not written into any bound book, but kept in a metal tin case or other container in the
courthouse. The NCSA has the originals, so I ordered the entire box for the Hyman family. What a treasure trove. Each person has their own file folder, careful organized by year. Kenneth Hyman had a big ol’ fat file. Don’t we LOVE to see fat files? Anyway, because it was all 1800s handwriting and time was short, we paid for them to copy the entire file to be analyzed it later.
Kenneth died in 1834 with a wife and several children. The critical phrase in his will was that:
all the rest and residue of my property I wish to be held in common stock until my youngest child attains the age of eighteen years with the exception that each one as they arrive at the age of twenty-one years or get married shall have one thousand dollars in money or its equivalent in property at the time
And what the loose records reveal is that because his youngest daughter was only about a year old when he died, his estate did not go through settlement until 1851! The records then name each and every slave, including an Arden and a Zion, as well as the final division into eight lots and which child they went to.
- Lot No. 5- to F[rancis] M. Hyman: Arden, Eliza and child Hannah, General, Turner and Elsy valued at $2370
- Lot No. 6- to Margaret E. Hyman: Zion, Adline, Daniel, Milly and Hilliard valued at $2200
The ensuing years had been tumultuous: Kenneth’s named executor, Theophilus, had also died during that time so an administrator had to be appointed. Theophilus had moved to Florida and died there, but not before purchasing land that turned out to be a scam–his relatives spent years fighting a court case there about that land. One of Kenneth’s daughters had married and her husband had already sold away her interest in her father’s estate before she could even inherit it. A brother Robert, who was ultimately named administrator, had beaten one of the slaves named “Boston” so badly, his siblings sued for damages.
What a horror this institution was, on a trillion different levels.
I remember reading that sometimes an estate wasn’t settled until many years afterwards, but this is the first time I’ve seen that principle in action and the payoff in terms of slaves. The year 1851 brings me much closer in time than 1834. The settlement documents show the slaves being rented out for each year. Imagine if I had stopped searching Kenneth’s files after the will and court books? Wow. I still have alot of research to do to tie together some loose ends on this line but I’ll say it again: Court Records Rock.