Martha Gerdeman

Martha Gerdeman

Some time ago the program of the Middle Tennessee Genealogical Association dealt with using archives. I have since realized that I although I have talked about using the archives in this column, I have never specifically dealt with exactly what they are. gives one definition of the word “archives” as “any extensive record or collection of data,” as well as “the location where records are kept.” An example is the Tennessee State Library and Archives, which is the repository for all official government documents in the state. Another is our very own Dickson County Archives. Incidentally, both archive and archives are used and no one can seem to agree if the word is singular or plural. 

Not all such repositories have the word “archives” in their name. My home county of Logan in the state of Ohio places historical records in the Logan County Genealogical Society — they are lucky enough to have an actual building. The historical records of, say, an insurance company, might be located in its headquarters. 

The Archives of Ohio United Methodism will be found at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio. As you can see, an archives is not necessarily obviously related to genealogy, although obviously, if you ancestor was an executive of a company, you might be able to find information in its archives — if you can locate them. 

What is found in an archive and how is it different from a library? I’m so glad you asked. If you frequent the historical and genealogical area of the Dickson County Public Library, you know that it houses both print and microfilmed records of the county. 

Sometimes the archives may be housed in the library, as in Metro Nashville; but in Dickson County, the archives live in Charlotte, in the basement of the courthouse annex (or the “new” courthouse). There you will find the really old deed and will books plus loose paper records, along with a small selection of printed record books, family records compiled by various people, and other miscellaneous genealogical records. 

What are “loose records”? Experienced researchers know that the bound deed or will books are not original records. As before mentioned, the original of any deed is given to the owner of the property and is not likely to be located unless it has come down through the family. The original of a will, however, is filed in a probate file or packet. That’s a loose record. 

Along with the will, the probate file contains every document having to do with the settlement of the estate. (Or at least it should. My fourth great-grandfather’s probate packet has almost nothing in it, but then he did die in 1814.)

I can check my files, for instance, and tell you that in 1859 a bedpan cost $1 in Champaign County, Ohio. I also have the records of how much a barber charged to come shave and cut the hair of one of my third great-grandfathers. And I know that he was still paying for his wife’s tombstone when he died and that his name was added to it.

Another relative — the sister of one ancestor — was a patient in the Ohio Lunatic Asylum when she died. An earlier family “genealogist” totally disregarded that record, even though I know he had examined her probate file. After all, in the 1950s most researchers preferred to leave those skeletons safely inside that closet. 

Poor Mary was only 19 and had been committed by her older brother/guardian because of derangement caused by “religious excitement.” All the receipts for both her schooling and her treatment are in her file.

Loose papers also include court records (all the papers generated by a case). They may include subpoenas, affidavits and all kinds of notes. A lawsuit in my mother’s paternal line went all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court, and I have photocopies of some of the documents.

There may even be loose marriage records in a file that could contain the permission from parents for an underage bride or groom.

Loose records can contain a lot of really helpful information for your reconstruction of an ancestor’s life, and guess what: Very few have been microfilmed. If you want to see your Dickson County great-great-granddaddy’s original will, you need to make a trip to Charlotte. And if he didn’t leave a will, you may be even luckier. When an estate was intestate (meaning there was no will), all of the heirs were supposed to sign off on the settlement. 

So, don’t be afraid to explore an archive. I’ve never met a grumpy archivist or one who didn’t want to help his or her patrons. You may find a treasure chest.

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