Why so much can’t be found…

Research in the American south is always a challenge.

Between records that were never created in the first place (think backcountry folks who didn’t bother recording documents in distant courthouses or capitals on the other side of mountain ranges, rivers or swamps) and records that were destroyed (think fire, flood, hurricanes, marauding troops and more), anybody with southern ancestors knows how hard it can be to find the records we want as genealogists.

As a researcher with direct line ancestors who lived in every southern state except Louisiana and Florida, The Legal Genealogist knows this pain only too well.

And as I get ready for this weekend’s seminar of the Augusta (Georgia) Genealogical Society and look at my own Georgia lines, I see just how peachy the records of the Peach State can be.

Georgia Seal

And there’s a complete explanation of just why the very earliest records of Georgia are as sketchy as they are in the preface to the first volume of a published set of Georgia records that ought to be required reading for any of us trying to research in colonial and early statehood Georgia.

The publication — in 26 volumes published between 1904 and 1916 — is called the Colonial Records of the State of Georgia. It was compiled by Allen D. Candler, published under the authority of the Georgia State Legislature and, these days, can be readily found in digitized versions online.1

The published set begins with the Charter of the Colony from George II, dated 9 June 1732,2 and proceeds through correspondence between individual Georgia residents and the British government as late as the mid-1750s.3

It’s perhaps the most comprehensive set of published records of the early Georgia colony, gathered from every source the researchers could think of. But the part of the set that may be the most fascinating (and painful for those of us who want these early records) is the explanation of just why so much is missing.

The compiler began his preface to the very first volume by lamenting:

…the loss or destruction of many of the most important documents and record-books pertaining to those two periods of the history of the State. When Savannah fell into the hands of the British in December, 1778, the Secretary of State, Captain John Milton, by order of Governor Houstoun, conveyed the most important records of his office and that of the Governor to Charleston to prevent their capture by the enemy ; but the older records, pertaining to the early Colonial period, and many of those relating to the period of the Royal Governors, were left behind and lost. … Prior to the fall of Charleston, in May, 1780, Secretary Milton again removed his records, this time overland in wagons from Charleston to Newbern, North Carolina, where he left them in the care of Governor Nash of that State, and returned to the army. Later on, when Georgia and South Carolina had been entirely overrun by the British and Tories, and North Carolina was invaded, and the Georgia records were again in danger of capture, Captain Milton got leave of absence from his command and carried them to Maryland, where they remained until after the close of the war, when they were brought back to Georgia. Thus were saved through the War of the Revolution most of the papers and documents pertaining to the office of Secretary of State, and a part, and only a part, of those belonging to the office of the Governor.

 

… Since the close of the Revolutionary struggle the capital of Georgia has been four times removed, and once occupied and sacked by a hostile army. In each of these removals doubtless many valuable papers which escaped destruction during the war for independence have been lost; and it is within the memory of many living residents of that city, that when Milledgeville was occupied by the Federal army in the winter of 1864, many important records and documents were taken out of the Capitol and either destroyed or carried away. At that time and in that way, many important papers relating to Georgia, and especially the part she had played in all the wars in which the United States had been engaged up to the war between the States, were irretrievably lost. …4

That would have been bad enough, and, in 1837, Georgia did its best to reconstruct the missing records by sending an eminent researcher to England to transcribe and bring home the critical records of the early days of Georgia’s history. Charles Wallace Howard finally brought home “twenty-two large manuscript volumes of about three hundred pages each, which he had bound in pasteboard and deposited in the Archives Rooms of the Capitol, in charge of the Secretary of State…”5

Except, of course, that the volumes didn’t stay there. In 1848, they were loaned to the Georgia Historical Society so that they could be used as reference material for one history of Georgia. They stayed there for 35 years until they were loaned out again for another history of Georgia. Finally, they were returned to the Archives Room at the Capitol… only to be loaned out again to Professor H.A. Scomp of Emory University for more research.

And you know what happened next, right?

In June, 1891, Professor Scomp’s house was destroyed by fire, and with it perished not only his private library, together with many of his manuscripts, the fruits of years of toilsome research, but also all of Howard’s transcripts of the London records, except three of the least important volumes, which Professor Scomp had left in the Capitol. At the same time probably perished many important records of the period of the War of the Revolution which can not now be found, and of which no copies were in existence anywhere.6

It’s to the everlasting credit of the Georgia Legislature that, in 1902, it voted again to try to reconstruct early Georgia records, and the Candler compilation was undertaken. The compiler noted: “Under authority of this act the present compiler was appointed in December, 1902, to do the work, and in the month of January following entered upon the discharge of his duties. The difficulties that confronted him at the very threshold of his undertaking were almost appalling, the material upon which he had to work being so fragmentary, so scattered and so deficient.”7

Nonetheless, by the end of his work, Candler was able to say: “While the compilation of Colonial and Revolutionary records is not as full and complete as the compiler earnestly desired to present to the public, it is believed to be the best now possible. No authentic record available has been omitted, and nothing of doubtful authenticity has been admitted.”8

So when we set out to do southern research, and find so many of the early records missing or incomplete, we can both lament the circumstances that cost us that recorded history — and thank our lucky stars for things like the Candler compilation.


SOURCES

  1. Allen D. Candler, compiler, Colonial Records of the State of Georgia, 26 vol. (Atlanta : State Printer, 1904-1906); digital images, HathiTrust Digital Library (https://www.hathitrust.org/ : accessed 29 July 2018).
  2. Allen D. Candler, compiler, Colonial Records of the State of Georgia (Atlanta : State Printer, 1904), 1: 18-26; digital images, HathiTrust Digital Library (https://www.hathitrust.org/ : accessed 29 July 2018).
  3. Ibid., Colonial Records of the State of Georgia (Atlanta : State Printer, 1916), 26: 502.
  4. Candler, comp., Colonial Records of the State of Georgia, 1: 3-4.
  5. Ibid., 1: 5.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., 1: 6.
  8. Ibid., 1: 7.
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