Misdemeanors, divorces, and many other Alabama stories found their way into the Circuit Court books and loose records. When the records themselves ceased to be of regular use, they were eventually deposited wherever an empty spot could be found—and as the years went by, this spot became the seventh floor of the Tuscaloosa County Courthouse. There, they moldered for decades, paper disintegrating in the top-floor heat. The leather bindings on court books rotted to red dust. And vermin enjoyed a hospitable and rarely invaded paradise, far from human tidiness, where they feasted on our ancestral stories.
Where there are records, though, genealogists will invade— and invade they did, starting around 2003, when FamilySearch was filming Tuscaloosa records downstairs in the courthouse. In search of missing divorce records for filming, the TGS team was sent to the seventh floor, where they began to discover the treasures buried beneath the filth. They recognized that the conditions were a recipe for disintegration. The records would not survive long here, so they appealed to Tuscaloosa for permission to do something about it.
Widows of Confederate veterans had to meet a number of conditions in order to receive the pension offered by the state. She could not have remarried or have children that could support her; she could not have private property worth more than $400; and it had to be certified that her husband was not a deserter from the Confederate Army. The application of Mrs. Margaret Awtrey, widow of Sgt. John Awtrey, was denied “on account of having good home and plenty of stock making a good living.”
The filming team has completed the digitization of 538 volumes of predominantly Circuit Court Records, dating from 1822 to 1962—and even a few very fragile 1820 documents have recently surfaced. Of the volumes, 161 have been indexed, with one to two more volumes indexed a month. The work in progress can be searched from its website at seventhfloorrecords.com.
Circuit Court minutes, judgments, witness dockets, pleas, trial and subpoena dockets, and other books place many of our ancestors in a particular place on a certain day—sometimes in detail and sometimes in only a brief mention. The books also include guardianship papers, bank and land records, and foreign executions—in which sheriffs of other counties were asked to execute writs.
Much of the information is the daily business of life in the Tuscaloosa courts, excellent for placing ancestors in their element. Now and then something out of the ordinary emerges—a human personality slipping through the legalese. For a brief period in 1855, for example, the clerk or judge keeping the Probate Court Minutes Book began to note the weather as the business of the day started—perhaps because it was the dead of winter. Even on a Sunday, with no court business to conduct, he wrote, “Sunday morning, bright & early a large snow on the ground, 3 inch deep or more.” These details open the vista on a moment in time.
In 2004 the TGS also began another large project to clean, organize, scan, and index approximately 300,000 pages of loose records, turned over by Circuit Court Clerk Bobo. Among these are divorce, ex parte, estate, property, guardianship, and Confederate pension cases, and many others. A handful are from 1833 and 1848, with most from 1860 to 1925. In 2014, as renovations began on the courthouse, another batch of loose records was turned over to the TGS. In 2017 the Alabama Department of Archives and History delivered records to the TGS dated from the 1820s to the 1860s. Nearly 75 percent of the loose records have been indexed and are being organized and filmed.
These give even more detailed personal looks into the lives of the people involved in cases—often with letters in their own words. They describe the cause of estrangement with a spouse or details of fraudulent acts by a business partner. Confederate pension requests describe the conditions of life for the person seeking help. One 1871 letter between two brothers describes their disagreement over whether to put their father into Bryce—the “Insane Hospital.” One writes, “For ten days, myself and my wife have been exiled from my home because of his terrible abuse of us both.” For genealogists, these cases are rich with details about life and the character of our ancestors.
The work goes on in Tuscaloosa, and committed volunteers are welcome and encouraged to join in— either on site or indexing remotely. Nothing means more to project members, of course, than seeing people use the material. See http://www.seventhfloorrecords.com/ for more information.