Genealogists are accustomed to dealing with records lost in 18th and 19th century courthouse fires. But in the 21st century, with fireproof vaults and good preservation policies in most counties, we are unprepared for the shock of a courthouse burning to the ground.
Genealogists and historians around the country succumbed to tears earlier this month when a fire gutted the historic 130-year-old courthouse in Hancock, Georgia, taking with it the evidence of the lives of famous, infamous and ordinary people whose paths came from, to or through the area.
Two disastrous actions fueled the fire. According to information a county official provided to the Georgia Archives, the building smoldered for days because coal stored in the basement for an old furnace continued to burn, producing toxic fumes that also hindered the possibility of saving any documents. Many of the courthouse records were held in a vault that could be accessed by two doors — both of which were open at the time of the fire. County officials have declared the records loss as “total.”
The courthouse was built in 1881 with $20,000 loaned to the county by one of its leading citizens, David Dickson. Dickson was well known around the state for his progressive farming methods, including introducing the use of guano as a fertilizer.
But he is best remembered and assured himself a place in history as the father of only one child, Amanda America Dickson, who was the product of the rape of one of his teenage slaves in 1849. Such situations were common in the South, but what was uncommon was that Dickson acknowledged the child as his. He and the child’s white grandmother, Elizabeth Sholars Dickson, taught her to read, write, play the piano and other skills usually reserved only for young white girls of wealth. Dickson also brought the child’s slave mother into his mansion as his housekeeper.
When he died in 1885, Dickson shocked the community again by leaving his estate — 17,000 acres of land and $309,000 — to Amanda, to be passed eventually to her two illegitimate children. Not surprisingly, Dickson’s white relatives contested the will in a legal case that first was heard in the very courthouse he funded.
Amanda won the case in the Hancock courts, but her relatives appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court. That court ruled that the 14th amendment to the federal constitution guaranteed legal rights for blacks and declared that all distinctions restricting black citizenship had been abolished, leaving them on equal footing with whites. “Whatever rights and privileges belong to a white concubine or to a bastard white woman and her children, under the laws of Georgia, belong to a colored woman and her children, under like circumstances, and the rights of each race are controlled and governed by the same enactments or principles of law.”
Now many original records related to the famous Dickson will and the lawsuit filed in the local court are gone. Gone also is the original will and all of the land records of my husband’s fifth great-grandfather, a much lesser-known man to the world but important to his family.
The LDS Church in the 1960s traveled around the country microfilming many county records, including some of those in Hancock County. This gives some solace; while all of the original records are gone, at least some microfilm files are available through the church and through the Georgia Archives.
A lesson to be learned here is that if you haven’t explored the old courthouses where your ancestor’s original records are maintained, don’t wait until it’s too late.
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Genuine family historians don’t just research ancestors — they know the importance of writing stories about their own life and times for their descendants.
The trick lies in knowing how to write the personal things. Local genealogist and writer Joan Shalleck is coming to the rescue with her “Write Your Life Story” workshop at Hillsborough Community College/SouthShore, Ruskin.
Classes for this two-hour class start Oct. 3. The class will meet on eight consecutive Fridays. For information, call the college’s Lifelong Learning line (813) 259-6010.
Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogical methodology questions and event announcements to her at stmoody0720@mac .com. She regrets she is unable to assist with personal research and cannot respond to requests for locating or researching individuals. Past Heritage Hunting columns are available online at tbo.com, search words “Sharon Tate Moody.”