Friday, September 21, 2012

Subterranean Direct Evidence: A Research Travelogue

In my experience, aspiring genealogists who read the top journals would love to read more than the polished, logical summary. They also want a taste of the research process that made the polished, logical summary possible. Here's one taste, involving my mother-in-law's great-grandfather's sister Elizabeth Bassett, who married Harry Porter. In this case finding Harry's origins was the problem.

I met up with some other folks on line who had also been researching Harry for a while. They had been using original records and had found much about his life in western New York and later western Illinois (Fulton County). Better still, they had some good clues indicating that he might well be the same Harry Porter who had grown up in Jefferson County, New York, with half a dozen brothers and sisters, none of whom had migrated to Illinois with him or had any known contact with him in later life.

Was Harry of Jefferson County the same man as the Harry who married Elizabeth and lived in Illinois? There might be enough indirect evidence to make a case, but there was plenty more research to do. Jefferson County Harry's father, John S. Porter, died in 1840, by which time Elizabeth's Harry had settled in Illinois. Any record that named Jefferson County Harry's residence would pretty well seal the deal one way or another.

Of particular interest, my new-found cohorts had unearthed an on-line newspaper item stating that two of Jefferson County Harry's sisters had received land from their father John S. Porter in a partition suit in the Jefferson County Court of Common Pleas. (Partition is a court case in which heirs ask that the decedent's real estate be divided among them.)

I consulted a researcher in Salt Lake City, who located the only deed Harry ever executed in Jefferson County. Shortly after father John's death, Jefferson County Harry sold all his rights to John's land to his sister Lydia Maine. Unfortunately the deed did not say where Harry was living at the time.

With this background knowledge I went to Jefferson County with two specific research targets:

(1) the loose papers in John S. Porter's probate, which should contain a list of heirs and a receipt from Harry, either of which might say where he was living; and

(2) the partition suit, which might also name Harry in some useful way.

Target #1 didn't work out. John's probate did list Harry as a recipient of a share of the estate, but it did not say where he was living at the time. And I found no receipt from Harry at all, although there should have been one. Probates can be like that sometimes.

That left Target #2. I had hoped to find a row of bound court books from the period, with in-book indexes. No such luck. The individual court sessions were each bound separately with no hard covers and no indexes, and with the three different kinds of courts (General Sessions, Common Pleas, and Oyer and Terminer) mixed together. Worse yet, according to the labels on the archival folders, there were no Common Pleas sessions for 1840 in the box at all!

Never trust a label when you can look. I looked at a file labeled General Sessions. Halfway through the writing was upside down. I flipped the booklet over and saw the "back" page was labeled "Common Pleas." The courts had saved paper by using the same set of pages for both courts' records, but only one was mentioned in the folder label. The needed Common Pleas sessions were there after all, stored archivally and in chronological order.

After that scare, I soon found records of two key court sessions: one where the court received the Porter heirs' petition for a partition of John S. Porter's land and named commissioners to divide it up, and another where the court approved the commissioners' proposal. Sister Lydia was to have two shares, and Harry's name was not mentioned. Having seen the deed, I knew why, but I still didn't know if this was our Harry or not.

While the court session records were being copied, I thought hard and realized I had one last option. I asked if they had any loose papers from Common Pleas, in the hopes (a) that the papers might include the actual petition the heirs had submitted, and (b) that if they did, the petition might contain more detail than the court's ruling had. I was soon rewarded with a box tight-packed with a year's worth of "trifold" papers from various cases, as they had been submitted to the court 172 years ago and then folded for storage. They were called "law papers," so there was no assurance that they would even include petitions.

Like the cases themselves, the trifolds had no index, but at least they were in chronological order. I worked my way through November and into December. (Time was running out in my world too.) But then, there it was: not one but two copies of the petition the heirs had filed with the court. And it named one of the heirs as "Harry Porter of Farmington Fulton County Illinois." O happy day!

One moral of this story: it would have done no good at all for me to go to Jefferson County "looking for Harry Porter." Genealogy at this stage requires knowing much more than the target's name -- the family, the type of record, the approximate date, the name of the court, the process involved in the original court proceeding -- enough that you can get to the unindexed records, keep going, and hopefully do some good with them.

Harold Henderson, "Subterranean Direct Evidence: A Research Travelogue," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 21 September 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


Rachelle Joy said...

Thanks for the details of your search. I just spent the day at the library realizing that the results I want are not going to come easy, certainly not today and maybe not ever. I appreciate your sharing your methodology, your lack of results and the final coup. It gives us all an education and hope!

Harold Henderson said...

You're welcome, Rachelle. Every story is a little different, so don't forget to tell yours when the time comes!