Leave No Stone Unturned: Read Unindexed Court Records!

Do you have days where you want to be on the genealogy hunt, but aren’t chomping at the bit looking to answer any particular research question?

I have lulls like that and I kind of enjoy them because it gives me a chance to slow down and use the time to investigate local record sets. Two of my favorite resources are court orders and court minutes.

I’ve written in the past about the Library of Virginia Chancery Court Records that are being digitized and place online, but chancery courts are not unique to Virginia. They existed in many states from America’s earliest colonial days.

What is a chancery court? It is a county OR regional level court that heard non-criminal complaints. The OR is very important, as will be seen in a bit. In the early 1800s, most of the chancery cases involved issues like clear titles for property ownership, family squabbles and fair distribution of estates.

Those issues produce juicy records involving the FAN club – friends, neighbors, relatives and business dealings are clearly detailed in the court minutes.

I had some free time on my hands and took advantage of the chancery court records that FamilySearch has digitized (and can be viewed at home) for Roane County, Tennessee.

Here is a terrific example of time well spent!

The scenario: I’ve spent decades working on my husband’s Williams family, following them from Virginia to eastern Tennessee by 1805 and onward. I know much more about some of the those early pioneers than I do about others because of where they lived and records created during their lives.

Charles Williams, a collateral line, was a man who I knew little about. I knew who his parents were as his father Samuel left a will in 1823 in Cumberland County, Virginia. I also knew that Charles headed to Tennessee with Williams brothers and cousins and they settled in Roane County, where they are found on the 1805 tax list.

However, in 1817, Morgan County was formed from parts of Roane and Anderson Counties; part of the family lived in the section that became Morgan. Unfortunately, Morgan County is a burned county. An 1862 fire destroyed marriage and probate records along with most court session records. If land records don’t help, you are out of luck.

To add insult to injury, census records for eastern Tennessee before 1830 are lost.

Back to Charles Williams – He was born about 1775, but who he married has been lost to time. I suspected that he had children who lived to adulthood because there were a couple of Roane County marriages around 1820 that I believed could pertain to his children. No proof, though.

I also suspected that Charles became a resident of Morgan County because of the timing of its formation, but, alas, his name was not found in the Morgan County deed index. I also suspected that he died before 1830 because he wasn’t found in the census, although all of the other Williams family members were still there.

Then why was I reading Roane County chancery court records? Because there were extended family members living in Roane County all through the 19th century and I’ve had other great finds in court records elsewhere. You never know what might turn up.

Here is a transcription of what I found on FHL film #008264454, Image 123:

Decrees of March Term 1844 – Bill

To the Honorable T.L. Williams Chancellor for the Eastern division of Tennessee
The Petition of Shadrick Stephens a citizen of the county of Morgan in the state of Tennessee humbly represents to Honor that about the month of August 1825 Charles Williams departed this life in Morgan County aforesaid having first made his last will & Testament in which he appointed your petitioner and Reuben Williams his Executors. At the January sessions 1826 of the county court of said County Your Petitioner and the said Reubin Williams qualified as Executors of said will In and by said will (a copy of which is hereto appended made part of this Petition) The said Charles Williams gave to his wife Elizabeth the use of most or all his real and personal estate and at her death directed the same to be equally divided among all his children. About the 25th day of June last past the said Elizabeth Williams widow and relict of the said Charles, departed this life Intestate, The Co Executor of Petitioner who was one of the heirs died some five or six years ago leaving four children, to wit Joseph Miller, Asa Cobb, Robert, Debby, all minors except Joseph They reside in some part of Alabama and Asa Cobb their uncle is guardian of the minors. Charles Williams also left as heirs Polly who married William Cobb and both are since dead leaving their children to wit Henry, William and Francis who resided in Mississippi the last Petitioner heard of them. Charles G. Williams who is also dead and left a wife and one child in Illinois or Kentucky her name is Betsy but the name of the child Petitioner does not know. Amanda Williams Daughter of Chls Williams decd who intermarried with Joseph A. Davis a citizen of Morgan County is likewise dead & left five children to wit John, Charles, Reubin, Malinda, Susannah, all minors. Susannah Williams daughters of the said Charles decd is the wife of your petitioner William Williams resides in the state of Illinois & Malinda Williams who is intermarried with David M. Rector & resides in Warren county Kentucky making seven in all of the heirs and distributees of the said Charles Williams deceased.

At the end of the petition, a copy of the will of Charles Williams, written on 3 August 1825 is appended:

In the name of God Amen, I Charles Williams of the County of Morgan and the State of Tennessee being weak in body but of sound mind and disposing memory do constitute and order this my last Will and testiment in manner & form as follows, first calling to mind that it is appointed unto man once to die, I Give my soul to God and my flesh unto the dirt from which it came. My estate which it has pleased God to Bless me with – first item, I leave my wife Elizabeth Williams all my estate real and personal during her natural life or widowhood, with some exceptions. Item – I give my son William G. Williams a horse out of my estate worth forth dollars when he shall arrive at age of twenty one years, Also my son Charles G. Williams to have a horse worth forth (sic) dollars when he shall arrive at the age of Twenty one years. My desire is that my daughter Malinda Williams to have a horse worth forth (sic) and woman’s saddle worth Eighteen dollars as soon as convenient not exceeding twelve months – I Leave my son Reuben Williams one hundred dollars which he is to have out of my estate any time when convenient, between this and the twenty fifth day of December on thousand eight hundred & twenty nine, which hundred dollars is to be deducted of his part at the death of my wife Elizabeth Williams, my further will and desire is that at the death of my wife my Mulatto Girl charity be free from slavery, and my wish is that some of my children come her and be security for her good behavior as the law directs if her conduct merits it. My desire is that at the death of my wife Elizabeth Williams the rest & residue of my estate be equally divided amongst all my children that is to say Reuben Williams, Mary Cobb, Susannah Stephens, Amanda Davis, William Williams, Charles G. Williams and Malinda Williams. I hereby constitute & appoint my son Reuben Williams and Shadarach Stephens my Executors to this my last will and testament, in witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and affixed my seal this third day of August 1825.

Charles Williams

Signed sealed and delivered in presence of John M. Davis & Robt. Williams

This petition adds much information to the heirs named in Charles Williams’ will:

  1. Charles died in August 1825, although court wasn’t held until January 1826.
  2. Not only were Charles’s children mentioned, but their spouses’ names are given by Shadrach Stephens.
  3. Between 1825 and March 1844, William & Mary Cobb, Reuben Williams and Charles G. Williams had all died.
  4. The surviving children of each (grandchildren of Charles Williams) are named and their place of residence given.
  5. Charles Williams’ widow, Elizabeth, died about the 25th of June 1843.

Remember to cast a wide net when you search. I wouldn’t have known that the chancery records in this time period included Morgan County (and I also saw random entries from Anderson and Blount Counties). The opening statement in the court minutes identify the Honorable T.L. Williams Chancellor for the Eastern division of Tennessee. In this time period, this chancery court moved from county to county around EASTERN TENNESSEE!

This one entry is a bonanza of information, even more so because it concerns records of Morgan County, which were lost to the 1862 fire.

One final caveat when reading court records – I frequently find that if there is an index, it is often incomplete. This volume of records does have an index, but neither the names of Charles Williams nor Shadrach Stephens are in it. I never would have found this record without reading page by page.









One thought on “Leave No Stone Unturned: Read Unindexed Court Records!”

  1. I enjoyed this article. In fact, the Roane and McMinn county chancery court records are on my to-do list to try shed some light on a brick wall for the parents of Isabelle McPherson, and to flesh out her husband’s family. She married William Rector there. I would bet money that David Rector is either his half-brother or cousin! I’m making a note of this record you shared for further follow-up. Thanks!

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