Vol. II, No. 3, Winter 1989

Helping History

The Probate Records Microfilm Project

by Rick Boland and Lynn Morrow

County officials in Madison County in southeast Missouri have faced mostly bleak financial times in the 1970s and 1980s. In Madison County, as in many other rural Ozarks counties, the problems of lower tax revenues produced by a generally stagnant local economy -- both a deteriorating farm economy and a lack of jobs that pay a living wage in the small towns- have been intensified by a withdrawal of revenue-sharing funds. County services have often been sharply curtailed, or in some cases even eliminated.

Particularly troubling to all those who care about local or family history is the prospect of poorly maintained courthouses and the lack of proper storage facilities for local government records. The potential for the loss of such records was obvious by the mid-1980s in Madison County. The courthouse in Fredericktown is 90 and looks its age. While some county records were microfilmed a few years ago by Mormon researchers, early probate records -- none of which had been filmed, and some of which dated back to territorial times -- were mildewing, being eaten by mice, and deteriorating in other ways.

After being spared from fire or other natural disasters for as long as 170 years, they were now crumbling into dust. We had used those probate records for our own research, and had seen that they contained a rich fund of information extending throughout the county's history. They possessed economic, social, and genealogical data that would be invaluable to historians in future decades and centuries.

Researchers often do not stop to consider the range of subjects that can be pursued in probate records. These include such well-known sources for genealogy as lists of heirs and slave accounts for black family history; sale bills of estate inventories, including lists of personal, mercantile, and agricultural possessions; guardianship papers and accounts telling how a minor was educated, medically treated, and otherwise provided for; and land patents and deeds. In addition, the business activity of merchants and farmers can be followed in lists of creditors and financial notes (i.e., loans); tax lists suggest various standards of living; construction contracts for houses, stores, mills, and sugar camps (and in Madison County's case, mining technology and agricultural support agreements) help reconstruct images of the historic landscape; school subscription lists suggest which families were active in a long-forgotten neighborhood school; apprenticeship and servitude indentures provide a window into vocational training and contract labor; early newspaper clippings offer evidence of short-lived publications; and court depositions for all phases of estate settlement supply "oral history" from the past.

As two people who believe that the Ozarks is an intriguing region about which too little history has been written, we feared that irreplaceable traces of life in the early Ozarks might be lost forever in the next few years if something were not done to help preserve those records. While some county officials realized that some of the older records were deteriorating badly and wished that something could be done, they generally were struggling just to provide basic county services, and had few resources to devote to the records.

Old Madison County Courthouse, Fredericktown, Mo., 1821-1899


We were able to find an alternative. Secretary of State Roy Blunt, who himself has a deep interest in the state's history, had directed the Missouri State Archives to develop a program to microfilm and help preserve important local government records from around the state. We contacted the Archives about the possibility of preserving the first century of Madison County probate records, from about 1810 to about 1910, and were told that staff members there would microfilm the materials if we -- as volunteers -- could persuade the Madison County probate judge to allow us to take the records to Jefferson City for the months that microfilming would require. We would also have to unfold, sort, alphabetize, and box tens of thousands of sheets of paper in thousands of probate files.

Our commitment to Ozarks history was tested when we thought about the days that would be required and the amount of gasoline it would take to go from our homes in central and southwest Missouri to Madison County. But when we looked at the records and saw in those bits of paper traces of the lives of early settlers like Josias Berryman, Allison Collier, Micajah Stone, Elizabeth Frier, Louis Baptiste St. Gemme, Moses Sebastian, and George Nifong, some of whom left few other written records of their lives, we did not want to let their names fall victim to historical amnesia. The society that they and their neighbors in other Ozarks counties made deserves to be studied and remembered, and we know that historians of the future will be grateful for every record that is preserved for study.

Having decided to go through with it, we contacted Associate Circuit Judge Don U. Elrod of the Madison County Probate Court and explained our wish to take the records to Jefferson City for microfilming. He agreed to participate in this combined venture of state government, local government, and volunteer effort, and he subsequently was very cooperative and patient in what turned out to be a lengthy process before all the records were taken to Jefferson City, processed, filmed, and returned to Madison County. His office staff also proved to be very helpful, especially in forwarding requests from researchers who wished to use the records but found that they had been taken to Jefferson City.

Getting thousands of brittle, dusty files out of narrow metal cabinets and unfolding them, sorting them, and alphabetizing them in acid-free folders was unpleasant and time-consuming, but we were aided by Kris Morrow, Lynn's wife. It was, of course, necessary to take great care with some of the older documents, and we sought direction from professional archivists on how to deal with those documents and insure that we did not damage them ourselves. Some eighty hours of labor later, we hauled by truck thirty-three boxes of files to Jefferson City.

Even after we got the boxes to Jefferson City, we found that much remained to be done in order to prepare the records for microfilming. The State Archives had a large number of boxes of records from other counties to be filmed and no staff members to spare in the foreseeable future to prepare the Madison County records. We were given moral support and encouragement, though, by State Archivist Gary Kremer, and we were aided by the fact that the Archives building was open on Thursday nights and Saturdays. Two staff members who worked often during those times, Jenifer Burlis and Lynne Haake, were genial and helpful (and sometimes even shared their pizza).

At last, after months passed and many more hours had been invested in the project, the filming was completed and we were able to return the boxes to Madison County. We also took a copy of the microfilm to the Fredericktown library. Since the courthouse vault containing the probate records is a cramped, uncomfortable place for researchers to work, we hope that most of them will be able to use the microfilm reader at the local library. Using the microfilm will also save wear and tear on the documents themselves, and will prevent the theft of materials from the original files.

In 1988, Madison County voters passed a four-year, half-cent sales tax to provide funds for restoration and preservation of their courthouse. That same year, the Madison County Historical Society was hard at work on a lengthy county history, which should be published soon. Two county residents who have strongly influenced a new interest in local history there, John Paul Skaggs and Paula Shetley, have helped secure funding from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources for a survey of local historic sites; and they are working with county officials to preserve other county records that were in serious danger of being destroyed. Mr. Skaggs also discovered in private hands a large number of 19th-century Madison County newspapers, none of which were available in any research libraries; and he arranged for Rick Boland to take them to be microfilmed at the newspaper library of the State Historical Society of Missouri in Columbia.

In the probate records vault. Judge Don U. Elrod, Associate Circuit Judge.


This sort of activity, including the preserving of 19th-century records in a remote county like Madison, may not seem terribly important to those who believe that only the history of the wealthy and the powerful, or only the history of New England or Virginia, are worthy of serious attention. But if we are concerned about the contemporary lack of historical knowledge by American schoolchildren, college students, and adults -- about the historical amnesia that is revealed when so many cannot recall the names or sequence of wars, identify presidents or national leaders, or give basic information about the creation of our democratic process -- we should see that the development of a personal interest in history by nonprofessionals in regions throughout the United States is a welcome occurrence that we hope will continue to spread. There are many Madison Counties, many such stories to be told, and many lives of poor and wealthy, female and male, to be remembered; and we will all be richer for that remembering.

How can nonprofessionals help in the enterprises of preserving records and advancing local and state history? They can join organizations such as county historical societies; they can support institutions like the State Historical Society of Missouri, the Missouri Historical Society, and the Missouri State Archives (a new organization to be called Friends of the Archives will help support the Archives in its mission of records preservation); they can support regional publications like OzarksWatch; and finally, they can volunteer to work under the direction of professional archivists, as we have done in attempting to help preserve Madison County probate records and early newspapers.

Inventory of the sale of all the worldly belongings of one William Miller, carpenter or cabinet maker.
Rick Boland is a native of Madison County, and works as Assistant Editor, University of Missouri Press, Columbia. Lynn Morrow is a self-employed public historian and Ozarks expert living in Forsyth.


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