Time to call a Genealogist

These days, my research takes me to the Morgan County Courthouse to explore nineteenth century legal records. As a historian trained in researching late-20th century America, this is unfamiliar territory. To learn the ropes, I turned to my friend Kathy. Not only does she possess an encyclopedic knowledge of Morgan County history, she is a seasoned genealogist with a knack for navigating complicated legal and municipal documents (she even teaches a course on genealogy at our local community college).

In academic circles, I sometimes hear historians grumbling about how archive reading rooms are “full of genealogists,” implying that genealogy is not real research. This grates on me a bit as the art of genealogy runs deep in my family, thanks to my grandmother and mother. My grandmother enjoyed the hunt, while my mom was initially driven to find out more about her father’s biological family (he was adopted when he was two). The end result is a closet full of binders and boxes of photos that tell a compelling story about who I am and where I came from.

My mom, whose prowess unearthed relatives from a very disorganized office in Ireland, is now working on a narrative history about seven generations of women in her family, which is even more illuminating. Genealogy, when done with such sensitivity and care, can foster a sense of connection and provide a source of healing. A few years ago my mom, who doesn’t exactly look like either of her parents, showed me a photo of her biological grandmother, Goldie. We knew Goldie had struggled. Her husband died, perhaps in the flu epidemic of 1918-1919 (we have some questions about his actual cause of death), leaving her with three young children. As a single mother, she did what many single mothers did: allow others to care for her children. I grew up knowing and understanding this narrative, but suddenly there she was. It was as though someone had photoshopped a picture of my mom into a 1950s portrait. There was a bond. A belonging.

In recent years, my students have expressed a growing interest in their own genealogy, thanks to shows like Finding Your Roots and Who Do you Think You Are? While the shows themselves portray a much simplified version of the actual research process, they nonetheless demonstrate that doing genealogy requires a specific skill set that most academic historians don’t possess. I am trained to look more at the bigger picture and situate archival documents within a larger context. This is my goal with American Athena, but in order to do that I have to piece the lives of specific Jacksonville women back together. I need to be able to locate these individuals at specific points in time – just as we do when researching our family histories.

So last week, I asked Kathy to meet me at the office of Circuit Clerk’s Office to find out more about those women who worked off debts at the Morgan County Poor Farm. Walking into the Courthouse with Kathy is fun because she knows everyone they know her, she also has quick ideas about where to look for clues. The staff at the Circuit Clerk’s Office was incredibly helpful and took the time to help us think of other helpful resources. I hoped to find the court records from when the judges handed down their decisions, but nothing surfaced in the index of the Chancery court records. We scanned through early court records and found compelling cases that revealed gendered relationships in stories of divorce, contested property, and the unraveling of Elizabeth Duncan’s life after her husband, Governor Joseph Duncan, died suddenly in 1844.

All of that was engrossing, but Kathy suggested we stay on track by looking at the minutes for the County Commissioners. There, we found ample records of the poor farm, including payments made in 1848 when they constructed the new facility, and payments made to local merchants and farmers for provisions. Interestingly, we also found evidence of cash payments made directly to the indebted women. This makes me wonder if I’m simply not understanding the situation. According to the poor farm records, judges ordered these women to work, and they worked a specified number of weeks at a firm rate of $1-$2 per week. It would make sense that the county would reimburse the merchants, but they didn’t.

Ultimately, I’ve decided to let that mystery simmer at bit. Doing research at the Courthouse is an entirely different experience from a traditional archive. There is no designated reading room, so we stood at a counter for three hours combing through historical records as other patrons buzzed in and out, taking care of everyday concerns like renewing passports. Furthermore, there are no cell phones or computers allowed, so it is all old school note taking. They will make photocopies, but the books are heavy and not at all suitable for placing on a copier, so pencil and paper it is. The work is painstaking, but there is real joy in learning new skills from a seasoned master. Kathy has incredible energy and said she could stay all day, but after a busy morning, I decided to turn it in. Before we left, she showed me how to find cemetery records – including a list of those buried on the poor farm grounds.

I’ve been back one more time to do some more exploring through a lawsuit involving the Trustees of the Jacksonville Female Academy and will write about that next week.



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