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 http://register.shelby.tn.us/. 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.