Thursday, January 24, 2013

Follow the Money

It took me forever to realize this, but a great way to uncover genealogical information is by reading lawsuits.  People sued each other all the time, particularly over the assets of an estate.  Assets include real estate, money, and, abhorently, slaves.  People were just as consumed with money, things that had monetary value, and keeping up appearances in the 19th Century as they are today.  if you’re fortunate enough to have ancestors who had money, land, and slaves, there’s a reasonable chance there was a lawsuit over the distribution of these assets.

Two wonderful on-line sources for uncovering basic information about lawsuits are Google Books and a database at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro Digital Library on American Slavery.

In Google Books, you can for example, enter the search terms,” Law  Equity  Supreme Court  Georgia” (Georgia is for the example - you can replace Georgia with the name of any state in which you’re interested).  Not all “Reports of Cases in Law and Equity” are available on Google Books, and the Table of Contents and Index in these books only show the title of the lawsuit (not the names of the people involved), but if you’re willing to skim through the books that are available, you can sometimes uncover some interesting information.

Once you pull up an e-book, you can also search within the book to see if the surname in which you’re interested is included in the book.

The Digital Library on American Slavery is particularly helpful.  This site doesn’t give extensive information about people/families who were party to the suits, but it often gives enough to allow you to make connections between people and can provides a boost for going forward with your research.  This database contains information on petitions filed in various courts and legislatures pertaining to slaves owned.

For example, I was stumped on the James Walker family of Central Georgia.  James Walker died about 1849 in Upson Co., Georgia, and I had a little information on his children and grandchildren.  Then, in the Digital Library on American Slavery, I found this interesting petition:

General Petition Information (filed in Washington Co., Mississippi, 1859)
Daniel Grant represents that his nephew, James S. Walker, was sued for nonpayment of debt in Georgia and that he, "being unwilling to see him go to jail," agreed to serve as his nephew's bail bond. Grant further relates that the said James "left the state of Georgia forfeited his bail bonds and your orator became responsible for the debts aforesaid." The petitioner reports that he followed his nephew to Mississippi and found him in company with Freeman Walker in Washington County "with a large number of Negroes." Grant reveals that the said James and Walker "executed a mortgage or deed to your orator" that authorized him to sell said slaves "to meet any responsibility he might incur as security of the said James." Noting that executions have issued against him for the payment of his nephew's date, the petitioner prays that said slaves be taken into custody and that the defendants be restrained "from running the said negroes out of the state."

It hadn’t occurred to me that any members of this Walker family had been in Mississippi, but, at least, I now had a specific location in which to do additional research.  And I discovered that James and Freeman Walker had a sister, Frances.  And that Frances Walker married William Coleman in 1857, Rankin Co., Mississippi, and then they moved back to Georgia where Frances and William Coleman were found in the 1850 and 1860 census records of Talbot Co., Georgia.

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