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Tawdry family tales lurk within dusty court records

An abandoned wife, the possibility of a bigamous second marriage, and two brothers willing to have their half-siblings declared illegitimate rather than share an inheritance.

Sound like the script of a cable television series? Actually, these are real elements of a family relationship as played out in a Morgan County, Ga., courtroom.

In 1818, Betsey Yarbrough married William Wilson in North Carolina. A year later, he left her and went to Tennessee, and no one heard from him for 19 years. In 1828, Betsey — thinking that Wilson was dead — married Thomas Eubanks, who had three sons by a previous marriage.

Fast forward to 1866: Alfred Eubanks, one of Thomas Eubanks’ sons, died without a wife or children or any lineal descendants. The administrator of his estate was about to distribute it among his siblings and half siblings when his relatives began a tug of war.

On one side were George, David and Sarah Eubanks, the other children of the deceased Thomas Eubanks and his widow Betsey. They were half siblings to the deceased Alfred. On the other side were Ambrose and Asa Eubanks, the other sons of Thomas and his first wife, and the deceased Alfred’s two full-blood brothers.

Ambrose and Asa alleged that George, David and Sarah were their father’s illegitimate children, contending their father had never legally married Betsy. If the courts indeed would declare George, David and Sarah as illegitimate then Alfred’s entire estate would go to Asa and Ambrose. Illegitimate people could not inherit from their legitimate half siblings.

Somehow Asa and Ambrose managed to find the long-missing William Wilson, who admitted he had abandoned Betsey after a year of marriage. He even admitted he had “married” a second time and had children without divorcing Betsey.

Betsey testified that she married Thomas Eubanks in 1828 and that her children were born in lawful wedlock because she thought Wilson was dead when she married Thomas. The usual array of acquaintances, friends and distant relatives lined up to give their opinions for each side. A jury sided with Ambrose and Asa and George, David and Sarah filed an appeal with the Georgia Supreme Court.

With the wisdom of Solomon, the high court ruled that the marriage of Thomas and Betsy marriage was voidable only during the lives of the parties and since it was not voided while Thomas was alive, the marriage was deemed valid.

In fact, the court rendered a tongue lashing to Ambrose and Asa, calling their actions a “disreputable attempt to bastardize George, David and Sarah.” The court declared that George, David and Sarah were legitimate and were therefore the lawful heirs of their half brother Alfred’s estate.

Court records can offer a wealth of genealogical information. These same records frequently reveal much beyond the basic facts of who, what, where and when of an ancestor’s life. They often reveal the bitterness and animosity between family members and — as the court appears to have thought in this matter —the basic bad character of some individuals.

Researchers can find records on the probating of wills (or the administration of estates when there were no wills) at a local courthouse or archival records facility. These courts usually bear the titles of Probate Court, Family Court, or Orphans Court.

Researchers should study the court structures in the counties where their ancestors lived to determine the name of the court and the location of existing records. This usually can be found online through a search engine such as Google.

For example, a search for “Hillsborough county probate court” shows that probate matters are under the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Hillsborough County.

Another route to take is through Family

Search.org. Select “Search” from the site tool bar and on the dropdown box there are several options. Selecting the “Wiki” will allow you to search, for example, “Florida probate court,” which will provide a variety of options for learning how to access records.

When ancestors challenged a local court decision by appealing to a state’s supreme court, those records likely will be in the state’s archives. Here again, conduct a Google search and follow links to educate yourself on who creates what records and where they are archived.

Send your genealogical methodology questions and event announcements to Sharon Tate Moody at [email protected]

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