Category Archives: Court House Records

Leave No Stone Unturned: James Wylie, Died Mecklenburg County, NC 1772 & Chancery Suit in Roane County, TN 54 Years Later

What is your preferred online search method for searching genealogy records? Do you enter a person’s name in the search box and stop there? If yes, then you are missing out on a world of great resources.

One of my favorite record sets is the minutes of a chancery court session. Chancery courts heard non-criminal complaints at the county or regional level. Family disputes were taken to chancery courts for decisions and those arguments were most often based on estate distributions and property ownership.

How do you find chancery court records? FamilySearch is a great starting place. Instead of entering a person’s name on the search tab, scroll down the menu tab to CATALOG and enter a place (state and county) name. Next, scroll the records for that county and look at Court Records. Look for Chancery Court records. Many of those early records have been digitized, BUT the book indexes, if they exist, are often incomplete.

You will need to browse and read page by page, but I promise, it is well worth your time if you find mentions of your ancestor’s family.

Here is a not-so-uncommon example of the kind of details to be found in these lawsuits:

While chasing BSOs , in the form of the Roane County, Tennessee Chancery Court Records, 1824-1845, FHL Film 008479252,  I was distracted by the lawsuit of the heirs of James Wylie who died in January 1772 in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, leaving a last will and testament detailing a sizable estate.

First, let me say that the Wylie family is not related to my husband’s family in any way and I can’t add to the details posted here, but I wanted to share this information for a couple of reasons.

1. This record set has a minimal index at the front of 668 pages of images (with 2 pages in each image!). Most of the entries in this digitized film are NOT indexed. I’ve said before that it is well worth the time to read court records page by page because they contain a wealth of information probably not found elsewhere.

2. There are descendants of James Wylie today. He is found on the FamilySearch family tree and there are online trees for him on Ancestry. However, most of the trees have as their single source an Ancestry tree and only name one or two of his nine documented children! James’s wife has been collapsed into one person by combining her and her daughter.

James Wylie’s entry in the FamilySearch tree alluded to this lawsuit, but didn’t give details and failed to post James’s widow’s second marriage and three additional children, all named in the lawsuit.

The chancery court lawsuit is one of the first cases heard by the Eastern Tennessee court in 1825. There are 22 (!!!!) pages of notes recorded by the clerk of the court, including the will of James Wylie, receipts signed by various relatives in the 1700s, estate inventories and more.

Because the record is so long, I am not posting any of the images here. However, anyone who is interested should begin with Image #12 in the above cited FHL film, viewable from home.

This is another example of many people with some of the same family information, but none of whom appear to have done any original research for themselves. They are missing out big time!

To illustrate what descendants are overlooking, I took some notes. James mentioned his eight children by name, plus the unborn child his wife Martha was expecting. In his will, James also mentions “until his children come of age” several times, but then gives land to his sons. It’s impossible to determine how many children are minors from the wording. Only Harris is identified as the youngest child.

Here are further details not in the will, but included in the lawsuit filed by they surviving children of James Wylie and heard by the chancery court in June 1825:

James’s  children were (Birth years estimated between 21 year old John and 2 year old Harris, their ages when James died):

1. John, eldest & 21 years old when his father died, so born c1751. John died within a year or two of his father, c1773
2. Thomas, next oldest child, born c1754, also died with a year or two of his father, c1773
3. James, born c1757, brought the lawsuit
4. Margaret, born c1759; married James Hall; lives in Blount County, TN
5. Robert, born c1761, died “10-12 years ago”, Greene County, TN; married Dorcas, who was party to the lawsuit
6. Jane, born c1764, married as a minor to Francis McCall; he died a few years before in western Tennessee; Jane then went to Mississippi
7. Martha, born c1766, married as a minor to Henry Miller. He died in August 1819, Roane County, Tennessee.
8. Harris McKinley; born c1769 (noted as 2 years old when his father died), currently living in Alabama
9. The last child, born 1772,  died in infancy.

Further, a year or two after James Wylie died, Martha married (2) David Miller. They had three children:

  1. Andrew, died with no descendants
  2. Elizabeth who married Thomas Taylor. Both died before the lawsuit but had “numerous” children.
  3. Isabella who married Baldwin Harle of Jefferson County, Tennessee

David and Martha Miller lived on James Wylie’s plantation in Mecklenburg County until about 1776. They removed to Botetourt County, Virginia, then about 1780/1 to Washington County, Tennessee and, finally, to Blount County, Tennessee.

Martha died c1814 and David died intestate in March 1819.

James Wylie, in his complaint, reasoned that the American Revolution disrupted court activities in North Carolina, his father’s heirs except for John were all minors when he died, property that should have gone to the heirs was sold off by David Miller during his lifetime and, finally, James repeatedly asked his mother and stepfather to make good on the legacies due to James’s children, but they replied they wanted to leave out their last years in comfort.

Defendant Baldwin Harle’s reply to the Wylie complaint was that not all the heirs were named in the complaint and while he knew nothing of how David and Martha Miller handled the estate of James Wylie, 54 years later was too late to come looking for an inheritance when James Jr. hadn’t held his mother or stepfather accountable during their lifetimes.

The chancery court agreed with Baldwin Harle and dismissed the complaint.

In summary, not only is a huge amount of information documented about the Wylie family, but a myriad of new places are mentioned where further records about the family might be found.

A quick search of Tennessee records shows marriages for Harris Wylie to Arty Taylor, 4 October 1790, Washington County; Robert Harris to Dorcas Balch, 5 September 1797, Green County, Tennessee.

I am sure many more records can be found to supplement the plethora of facts in this lawsuit.

Take the time to do your own research and dig deep!



A Unique, Underused Set of Records: Court Minutes

Recently, I shared my love of chancery court files, but those aren’t the only court records I love.

Have you ever read original court minutes?

Court minutes are one of my favorite sources for genealogy resource. I rarely see them cited in online information. When they are, it appears that one person did the research and then others copied and pasted the same information, complete with the exact same (not original to the copy, but current human) typographical errors.

There is probably one reason why court minutes are such an overlooked resource – many records have no index or, at best, a very incomplete index. That puts off many people who never learn what a wealth of information those minutes hold. (Note, though, that by the mid-1800s, some county clerks actually created an index as they made entries.)

Why should you read court minutes?

Have any of your ancestors settled in a burned county? Plenty of my husband’s family has! Sometimes a burned county doesn’t mean total record loss. Perhaps the vital records burned, but not deeds. Maybe the deeds AND vital records are gone, BUT the court minutes survived. Even if un-indexed, those records might be the sole surviving primary source records for that area.

Did your family pass through, but not live in a county for very long? Did someone die as a young adult and no probate record has been found? Well, those relatives might be mentioned in court minutes.

If your family lived in a county for a long time – decades – you should make those court records an important stop on your research list.

If you’ve been reading my Elizabeth Gwinn Spear saga, you already know that one of the places I’ve searched is Surry County, North Carolina. Surry’s records don’t all begin in the same year, but some reach back to the founding of the county in 1771, when it was set off from Rowan County.

I’d like to share examples of several of the unique tidbits I’ve found in Surry County’s court minutes, which are like court minutes in just about every other county. All court business, ranging from deeds that are proven, wills ordered to be recorded, estate administrator’s report to be filed and lawsuits ranging from slander to debt and more, is noted in each court session.

Justices are identified, jurors are named, and, during the time of the American Revolution, traitors to the cause of independence are sometimes identified, as their estates were confiscated and handled through the court system.

Questions about ownership of enslaved people as well as children born out of wedlock were decided. Orphans’ guardians are often named and/or information as to whom the orphans were bound out is included.

Have I piqued your interest? Here are some examples of business items on the Surry County Court agenda in the 1770s and 1780s, all found in digitized records on FamilySearch.:

On motion of Col. Osborn Its ordered that Abraham Creson be Bound with Secty (security) in the Sum of £2000 with Condition that he produces here to the next Court a negro Woman named Jane Scott who lives with him & claims her freedom and that in the mean time that said Creson do not sell or otherwise Disposes of said negro or her four Children of any of them —
And the said Abraham did agreeable to this order Enter into Recog to the State in the Sum of 2000£ with (Say!)? Each for £

Gideon Wright & Jo. Williams Seals
Each £1000 for Abraham Creson preformance (sic) with the above


Ordered by the Court that Fielding Henderson a bastard Mulatto boy aged the 26th day of August fifteen years be found to Charles Worth untill (sic) he arrives to 21 years to learn the Art & Mistry (sic) of the Tanner trade & Serves (?) the said Charles agrees to learn him to read Write & Cypher as far as the rule of three inclusive & to give him two new suits of Clothes at his freedom.

These next two items don’t appear to be anything special. However, I had seen Robert Speer in the DAR Patriot Index with a death date of 15 August 1781 and a notation that he married a woman named Elizabeth. All the early Speers in Surry County appear to be related and I had no idea who this man was. He isn’t found in the land deeds nor in the probate records. Here are two entries made on 15 August 1782:

Henry Speer vs Robert Speer
N: On attachmt The Jury whose names are under written being impannelled & sworn for the Pltff £27080 Current Money & Cd Cost

1. James Sheppard
2. Reuben Dodson
3. Charles Dudley
4. Joel Swain
5. Jonathan Clarke
6. Airs Hudspeth
7. William Freeman
8. Phil Holcomb
9. John Martin
10. George Holcomb
11. Wyatt Garner
12. Henry Shore

Then, on the same page is this entry:

Henry Aires vs. Robert Speer
N: The same Jury as for N: being Sworn find for Pltff £320 Currency & C Cost.

There are no decimals that I see in the £27080 or in the £320 amounts that Robert Speer lost in the two suits against him. I don’t know how much either is worth in today’s currency, but converting £27080 in today’s dollars is almost $44,000. We are talking quite a fortune here unless the clerk meant £27.0.80, which seems more  likely.

The bigger question is why was Robert Speer being sued by a relative and another man both on the same day? There are no further details.

I found one more entry concerning Robert Speer in the May 1782 court session:

On the Resignation of Elizabeth Speer wife & Relict of Robert Speer Decd of her right of Administration on her said Husband’s Estate. Administration of said Estate is granted to Andrew Speer & Joshua Speer who Entered into Bond with Robert Ayres & Henry Speers Surt. in the sum of £500. Speer: Admr Qualified according to law A. Speer to pay fee.

Robert therefore died sometime between 15 August 1781 and May 1782. Not only was he sued by Henry Speer, but months later, Henry was the surety for Andrew and Joshua Speer, administrators of his estate. Hmm.

Is Roger Turner of Surry County an ancestor of yours? If so, here is proof he was a Tory, if not an outright Loyalist:

The Court taking into consideration the distressed situation of Catherine Turner & Children Wife of Roger Turner a Traitor to his Country having attached himself to the Enemies of the United States. Think it (proper)? (?) the commissioners of confiscated Estates in this County to (?) of (?) of the said Estate to Catherine Turner it appearing to the Court that there is not a (suffering or sufficience)  (?) Care & for the support of the woman and Children

The family of another Tory or Loyalist left destitute:

Ordered by the Court that Mrs. Keziah Murphy wife of Robert Murphy who has taken up arms against this and the United States on her application to the Court for the sustenance of herself & children out of her said Husband’s Estate be allowed the following articles to wit. four head of Horses seven head of Cattle six head of hogs & all the Household furniture in her possession.

One last example from the minutes, as a number of women are mentioned:

Ordered by the Court that Mary Nolin Enter in acct with four sur herself in £2000 & sury in £1000 enter for Keeping her Children from being Chargeable to the County & in Recog that she be of Good Behaviour towards the State.

Being that this entry was made in 1779, my guess, based on “she be of Good Behaviour towards the State,” is that her husband was a Tory and he has either died or fled somewhere.

These are just a few of the many, many kinds of details recorded in those court minutes.The best thing about this resource is that, being copyright free, many have been digitized and are already online at FamilySearch.

Have I convinced you to delve into all those old court minute books?




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.