Every genealogist, and everyone who has ever talked with a genealogist, knows the importance of probate records to family history work. In 19th century Alabama, the probate judge was the most powerful official in the lives of common citizens, and county probate offices hold an array of important records that tell us about our ancestors as well as the societies in which they lived.
Family historians are also familiar with the genealogical collecting work of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons, or LDS Church). As director of the LDS Genealogical Library wrote in 1983, church members “trace their ancestry as a solemn duty.” To that end, the LDS Church built the Genealogical Library in 1894 and began microfilming its own church records in 1938. After World War 2, the church filmed historical records in other repositories. It accumulated over 1 million reels by the 1960s and had long-range plans for ongoing microfilming.
By the 1990s, those plans included microfilming bound county records across the U.S. In 1998, the Alabama Department of Archives and History began working with the church to film “loose records” in probate offices. ADAH funded county projects in which volunteers unfolded and arranged estate files, wills, apprenticeship contracts, Confederate pension records, and family records like marriage certificates, divorce decrees, and guardianships to 1915.
LDS volunteers microfilmed the records, providing a copy of the film to the state archives and the county in addition to sending one to Salt Lake City. Twenty-one Alabama counties initially participated in the project, and by March 1999 ADAH had issued guidelines for preparing and organizing the records for filming. (ADAH, Government Records News, December 1998; ADAH, “Procedures for Loose Records Preparation by County Project Volunteers,” March 1999.)
Henry County in Southeast Alabama joined the project in 2000. The county historian, T. Larry Smith, rebuilt the local historical association, now called the Henry County Historical Group, by collecting volunteers to prepare over 1750 files (27 cubic feet) of handwritten documents, ranging in size from double-sized legal sheets to tiny scraps used when paper was scarce.
Henry County was created one day before Alabama was admitted to the Union in 1819, and its records stretched from 1809 to 1919. Importantly, Henry County’s courthouse never burned, so its records are unusually complete.
The most common type of record in the collection is the estate file, which is a wealth of information. Some estate files are simple, merely a will filed at the courthouse for safe keeping, while others take up multiple folders and contain wills, correspondence, legal rulings, executor narratives, and accounting reports. Many of those before 1865 carry the names of enslaved people who formed part of the estate to be divided among heirs. It’s odd but compelling to see how the cold banality of legal language obscures the humanity of the enslaved. This is especially true when file after file does the same thing.
Almost as interesting is the 1859 indenture (apprenticeship contract) of Missouri Whitley. Missouri was eight years old when apprenticed to learn “serving and household duties.” Her master Benjamin Trimual was bound to “teach her to read, write, and cipher as far as the rule of three,” provide her with “a sufficiency of good and wholesome provisions . . . [and] all necessary clothing and lodging [and] treat her with kindness and humanity.” At the end of eight years she would receive “two complete new suits of clothing.”
The Henry County Historical Group completed this part of the project in 2001. Neatly preserved in acid-free folders and boxes, the records were stored with the voting machines in the Henry County Courthouse until Probate Judge David Money arranged to store them in the Wiregrass Archives in July 2019. State law prohibits local governments from “alienating” their records, so these are on deposit until Henry County arranges for its own facility to house them. These records are open to the public, as is the Wiregrass Archives during regular working hours. To find out more about the Henry County Records in the Archives, point your browser at https://resources.troy.edu/wiregrassarchives/inventories/247.html.
It Came from the Archives is an ongoing series spotlighting the fascinating collections at the Wiregrass Archives. To find out more, visit online at https://www.troy.edu/wiregrassarchives or in person in Everett Hall on the Dothan Campus.