The joy of unindexed records

Poking around in unindexed records

I’d be happy to write a blog post right now, except that I’m busy. Very busy. Did you know that thousands and thousands more pages of North Carolina Supreme Court case files have gone online as digital images at recently?1 Now, okay, so you already know that I’m a bit of a law geek, or I wouldn’t be running around writing about things like talesmen and posse comitatus and the like. But hey… this stuff is fun.

Yeah, yeah, I know the records aren’t indexed yet. Big deal. The sheer number of things you can learn just from poking around in court records is staggering. Here’s a quick sampler of the kinds of things you can find:

1819 Commission to Robert Houston

     • Cherokees who remained in western North Carolina under the Treaty of 27 Feb 1819 were entitled to a personal reservation of 640 acres as a perpetual inheritance, unless of course they sold it to a white man thereby setting off a fight over the land years later. And the original or a copy of the 1819 commission to Robert Houston of Knoxville, Tennessee, to survey the treaty lines and lay off the land is included in the case file. He was to be paid $8 a day and $1,000 was set aside for his account. He was allowed to hire surveyors and chain carriers and axemen to help if he needed them. Surveyors could be paid $5 a day and axemen and chain carriers $2 a day.2

     • In June 1858, John Everett of Caswell County died leaving a will in which he named Samuel Harrison, Joseph Totten and Daniel Everett executors. There’s an amazing list of heirs named at the beginning of this court case, which has to do with certain questions arising from provisions of the will. One in particular knocked my socks off. Although Everett directed that his estate be sold, he also directed “that my negroes shall have the privilege of selecting their masters.”

This baffled the executors, who asked the court whether it was lawful to allow slaves to choose: “your orators show in this connection that they are advised that it is at least a doubtful question whether a slave can select his master or do any act requiring judgment and will.” The court’s judgment: “It is settled in this State that such a humane provision by a testator is not against the policy of our law and ought to be observed.”3

     • It was illegal for a “free negro” to simply move into North Carolina and take up residence there in 1857. Bill Ely was indicted by a grand jury in Beaufort County for being a free man of color who “unlawfully did migrate into this State and is and was … staying in and inhabiting the said County.” Ely was convicted and fined five hundred dollars. But since he couldn’t pay the fine, the sheriff was directed to “hire out said Defendant … to any person who will pay said fine or the greatest part thereof for the services of said Defendant for the shortest space not exceeding five years.” Ely beat the rap on appeal because the indictment charged him with being a “free man of color,” while the statute used the phrase “free negro.”4 There but for fortune… the man would have been sold back into servitude but for a couple of wrong words in the indictment.

     • Parties were allowed to plead using pseudonyms. In an 1852 suit for ejectment, the plaintiff John Doe said he had a lease for 99 years and Richard Roe came onto the farm by force of arms and tossed him out. He sued Richard Roe who said, essentially, “it wasn’t me, boss — go after John Hill.” So Doe sued Hill and the defendant was found guilty of trespass and ejectment. John Doe? Richard Roe? Really? 5

     • Trying to finagle your way out of a bad decision is nothing new. James Shuford of Catawba County was a young man who needed to borrow some money to finish his education in the early 1850s. He had a remainder interest in land his grandfather had owned. His mother, who was still living, had a life estate and the young man would inherit it after her death. He entered into a deal with Jonas Cline to borrow the money, didn’t pay it back for four years, and then claimed he hadn’t sold the land to Cline but only mortgaged it. The hitch was, his own witnesses said it was a sale deed, not a mortgage deed. Cline won that one.6

     • The North Carolina Supreme Court of 1902 didn’t know the difference between a first cousin once removed and a second cousin. A Guilford County man brought a suit for damages against Western Union for not delivering a telegram informing him of the death of his first cousin’s child in time for him to attend the boy’s funeral. The jury found for the man and awarded $457 in damages against Western Union. The Supreme Court described the boy as plaintiff’s second cousin. Sheeesh. Oh, and since a telegraph company can’t insure timely delivery, and the trial court goofed on the way it instructed the jury, the Supreme Court ordered a new trial.7

Fun stuff. Honest. Go ahead. I dare you. Take an hour or two, pick any of these records at random, and just read ’em.


  1. North Carolina, State Supreme Court Case Files, 1800-1909,” FamilySearch ( accessed 15 Mar 2012).
  2. “North Carolina, State Supreme Court Case Files, 1800-1909,” FamilySearch ( accessed 15 Mar 2012), entry for John Shuler v. J.R. Siler, Macon Co., August 1852, images 1-20; citing Supreme Court Files, 1852, Box 247 case 6478; North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh.
  3. “North Carolina, State Supreme Court Case Files, 1800-1909,” FamilySearch ( accessed 15 Mar 2012), entry for Samuel Harrison et al. v. Nancy Everett et al., images 1-12; citing Supreme Court Files, 1859, Box 304 case 7820 (emphasis added.)
  4. “North Carolina, State Supreme Court Case Files, 1800-1909,” FamilySearch ( accessed 15 Mar 2012), entry for State v. Bill Ely, Beaufort Co., 1857, images 1-11; citing Supreme Court Files, 1857, Box 284 case 7301.
  5. “North Carolina, State Supreme Court Case Files, 1800-1909,” FamilySearch ( accessed 15 Mar 2012), entry for Doe on Demise of Thomas K. Morrisey v. John Hill, Duplin Co., June 1852, images 1-4; citing Supreme Court Files, 1852, Box 242 case 6340.
  6. “North Carolina, State Supreme Court Case Files, 1800-1909,” FamilySearch ( accessed 15 Mar 2012), entry for James M. Shuford v. Jonas Cline, Catawba Co., 1857, images 1-46; citing Supreme Court Files, 1857, Box 298 case 7667.
  7. “North Carolina, State Supreme Court Case Files, 1800-1909,” FamilySearch ( accessed 15 Mar 2012), entry for T.A. Hunter v. Western Union Telegraph Co., Guilford Co., 1902, images 1-20; citing Supreme Court Files, 1902, Box 1031 case 20766.
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4 Responses to The joy of unindexed records

  1. Susan Clark says:

    I’m delighted you’re having such fun with this and agree it can be addicting – even for those of us who are not law geeks. But since I’m still wading through the 18th c. Washington County (TN)court records I snatched last summer I’ll leave the NC records to you – for the moment. But if you should happen across any Hamptons, Sawyers, Killians or Mulkeys…

  2. I wish FamilySearch would just put all the records up. My understanding is that they are way ahead but are refraining so people will index them in order to see them. Does it help to have the Texas death certificates indexed? Yes. Even though I have sent corrections on at least five images that I could not find, yet had a microfilmed copy in hand. (Using all names available on the certificate.) Do I want to depend on an index created for South Carolina probate records? NO. We don’t do that when accessing the film, why would we do that when we can just see the originals? (A little bit of venting going on here.)

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I sure understand the “gimme the records now” feeling. I love a good index… but I don’t want to wait for the index to have access!

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