Little Blessings that Inspire

My ancestors were very thoughtful folks. They settled in Massachusetts and stayed there making shoes for three hundred years. Researching their family history is about as difficult as solving a Monday crossword puzzle. Researching southern families, on the other hand, is more like doing the Sunday crossword. The Times Sunday crossword. Sometimes it’s even as bad as the Singapore Straits Times Sunday crossword of 26 January 1941. That’s one where they put in the clues for one puzzle but the grid for another, and kindly printed an apology the next day: “The crossword, as published in The Sunday Times yesterday, was impossible of solution.”

“Impossible of solution.” That could be the motto for southern research. You get a family in the Deep South and dollars for donuts they became Baptists (no infant baptisms with this group!), burned down their courthouses (probate records? land records? court minutes? Ha!), and named every blasted county they lived in after the same three Revolutionary War heroes, no matter what state they ended up in. Legend has it great-grandma’s family came from Marion County? Would that be Marion in Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Texas, Mississippi, Florida or South Carolina?

But once in a while the genealogy fairy godmother smiles on you, and you stumble across a website like Tennessee’s Shelby County Register of Deeds at You’ll think you’ve died and gone to Massachusetts. I don’t know who is responsible for this website, but if there is a genealogy Hall of Honor, I have a candidate. What an unassuming little page this is! It has all the design pizzazz you’d expect from a county registrar: plenty of Helvetica and not a bit of flash. But, oh my! the databases!

Property records, Partial Indexes and Images from 1812 to present.

Birth Records 1874-1912

Chancery Court Divorce Index 1945-1997

Circuit Court Indexes 1893-2000

Death Records 1848-1962

Marriage Records 1820-1970, with Indexes/Images 1920-1989

Memphis City Directories 1849-1943

Memphis Police Blotter 1858-1860

Naturalization Records 1856-1906

Probate Court Loose Paper Index 1820-1900

Probate Court Will Book Indexes/Images 1830-1980

Did any of your ancestors happen to attend Snowden High School between 1941 and 1995? Well, you can just look up their yearbook then—every one of them is online. Know anyone who might have died in Memphis between 1853 and 1919? Check out the online images (no transcriptions here) of the Daily Burial Records for Elmwood Cemetery. Not buried in Elmwood? Then click over to the database of Gravestone Inscriptions for Shelby County, searchable as well as browsable in both pdf or tiff format.

Why, oh why can’t everybody’s family have come from Shelby, Tennessee?

So I’m thinking, what would it take to get that level of data online in my county? Heck, I don’t have any ancestors of my own down here and my research generally focuses on Alabama and points north and east, but if I can help take care of Santa Rosa County, Florida, maybe someone will be likewise inspired to take care of Marion County, Alabama/Tennessee/West Virginia/Georgia/Texas/Mississippi/Florida/South Carolina. It wouldn’t make up for those piles of courthouse ashes, but if I didn’t have to dig so hard to find the basics (or to find what basics actually survived), I’d have more time to search through those thousands of unindexed manuscripts cataloged on NUCMC and the miles of obscure Record Groups at NARA.

I might even finish one of those crossword puzzles.

Samuel Carter, Who Was Brought from Georgia

I was putting together a lesson for Saturday’s genealogy class, looking over the digital record collections on FamilySearch, when I stumbled across “United States, Freedmans Bank Records, 1865-1874.” At IGHR this past June Deborah Abbott had described the wealth of information recorded about account holders, so on a whim I clicked the link and started reading.

Boy, is she right! “Lafayette Robinson… has always lived in Huntsville… father John resides corner of Gallatin and Holmes… mother Ann died 15 or 16 years ago… brothers… step-mother… sisters…” What a gold mine! I couldn’t stop reading.

Samuel Carter’s entry brought me up short. In “Remarks,” above the X that marks Samuel’s signature, is written “Was brought away from home when so small that you don’t know parents or any of his relatives.” Samuel was living in Huntsville by the time he opened his bank account on October 1, 1867, but his bank record notes that he formerly lived in Marshall County, Alabama. There are a few more details: he turned 24 on the third of last March, he is not married, he lives in an alley between Church and Mill Street in Huntsville, his complexion is black, he works on the railroad. He attends the Baptist Church. He was born in Georgia—“Don’t know place.”[i]

I want to find Samuel’s parents.

There are a few leads. The surname Carter; lived in Marshall County, now in Huntsville; railroad; age 24 in 1867, so born in Georgia around 1843. I quickly found him in the 1870 census: now 26, working in a machine shop, born in Georgia, still single. He can read, though he can’t write.[ii] Can I find him in the Alabama State census in 1866? Yes: he’s in Marshall County. Household of one male, age 20-30. And look! Right after his name is another Carter. Jim Carter. Also a single male, age 20-30. [iii] Perhaps another clue?

Hypothesis: a slaveholder in Marshall County named Carter owned at least two males slaves, one born around 1843, and another in the same age range.

Can I find such a man in the 1860 US slave census? There are four possible candidates (all incorrectly indexed on as Caster or Canter): Joseph M Carter in the Eastern Division of Marshall County who owned 16 slaves, including two 18-year-old boys; Charles Carter in the Western Division who owned six slaves, including one 19-year-old and one 16-year-old boy; and two other Carters enumerated on the slave schedules immediately after Charles: Martin and Thomas, who owned one slave each, both 15-year-old boys.[iv]

I don’t have an end to the story yet. This is completely new territory for me—I’ve never researched slave records, and I have a lot to learn. That’s the danger of family history, isn’t it? These names pop out at you from the images, and they take on a life of their own and then take over yours. There are so many questions I wish but know I may never be able to answer: How did Samuel  come to work on the railroad? How had he learned to read, such a short time after the War? I discovered that Sam married and moved to Memphis, Tennessee, but haven’t found him in later censuses.[v] Why Memphis?

There are a lot of records out there I’ve yet to explore….


[i] “United States, Freedmans Bank Records, 1865-1874,” Huntsville, Madison County, Alabama, Record Book 1, record no. 25, Samuel Carter.

[ii] 1870 U.S. census, Marshall County, Alabama, population schedule, Township 3 Range 1 West, p. 23 (penned), p. 319A (stamped), dwelling and family 202, household of Thomas Earskin; digital image, ( accessed 13 July 2013); citing NARA microfilm publication M593, roll 27.

[iii] Alabama State Census, 1866, Marshall County, Schedule 2 Colored Population, p. 39, entries for Sam Carter and Jim Carter; digital image, “Alabama State Census, 1820-1866,” ( accessed 13 July 2013).

[iv] 1860 U.S. census, Marshall County, Alabama, slave schedule, Eastern Division, p. 4 (penned), col. 1 lines 8-23, Joseph M Carter; digital image, ( accessed 13 July 2013); citing NARA microfilm publication M653, roll number not listed. Also 1860 U.S. census, Marshall County, Alabama, slave schedule, Western Division, p. 7 (penned), p. 119 (stamped), col. 2 lines 27-34, Charles, Thomas and Martin Carter; digital image, ( accessed 13 July 2013); citing NARA microfilm publication M653, roll number not listed.

[v] 1880 U.S. Census, Shelby County, Tennessee, population schedule, Memphis, enumeration district 148, p. 270B (stamped), dwelling 155, family 187; Samuel Carter; digital image, ( : accessed 13 July 2013); citing NARA microfilm publication T9, roll 1280.

About that Family Tree…

I thought long and hard about which topic to tackle with this, my first blog. It’s not so much an issue of first impressions and wanting to make this one count, as I think it’s a safe bet that this first blog will find its readership only among those who have known me long and well. But this first blog is setting me on a path, and I want to make it a path worth my following.

So what is so important about the FamilySearch website’s Family Tree that out of all the topics I could choose, this one so quickly floated to the top and stayed there? It has to do with why family history (and I prefer that term to genealogy) is so near and dear to my heart.

Family history—the history of family. By extension, the history of community. Ultimately, the history of society and civilization. The history of human interaction, of distribution of opportunity, of collaboration and conflict. Until very, very recently, historians restricted themselves to the study of famous men and outstanding acts of vice or valor or creativity. Why? Well, the data management was just a lot easier. Think about it—how much data must one collect to understand the life of one man? Multiply that by a thousand, ten-thousand, a million…. Family history has simply been beyond the practical capabilities of historians. How can you amass, assemble, and analyze the quantity of data necessary to lay clear the patterns of interaction that shaped an entire community of individuals? Where do you store all that information while you’re collecting it? How do you make it available to the number of research historians necessary to tackle a project like understanding family history at a global scale?

This project will need some organization really big, simply to have the space to store a vast amount of detailed information, about every individual that ever left his or her name in a record, manuscript, or oral history.

Collecting and organizing this database is going to take a long, long time. We need an organization that we can count on lasting not five or ten or fifty years, but centuries.

It needs to be an open database that allows an unlimited number of researchers to contribute data and to access that data for analysis. Given the scope of this project, the number of researchers involved will need to number in the thousands. Remember, we’re not just talking about collecting vital statistics, but the raw details of everyday life that historians will need in order to understand every facet of a community’s life. Think of all those manuscript collections that languish yet unindexed and undigitized: letters, journals, newspapers, business ledgers, agency reports…

Let’s not talk about cost—but I’ll simply say that I am grateful that someone has undertaken this venture without asking me to pay for it. (OK, indexing aside.)

Yes, I’m talking about the website’s Family Tree.

I know, I know! I do know it’s full of garbage. It is the New Jersey landfill of databases. You can’t go three generations in any direction without finding enough nonsense to fill a volume of Lewis Carroll poetry.

But hold on a moment. You’re all family historians, so let me take you back to a scene from our nation’s early history:

William and Sarah Pilgrim have just topped the crest of the last hill. At the ridge line, William spreads his arms wide. “Sarah, dear, this is where we’ll make our home.”

Where would we be now if Sarah had taken one look and answered “For heaven’s sake, Bill! You’ll never get a crop on this—it’s all trees!”