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Thursday, April 7, 2016

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Our genealogy journey to the Jefferson County, Alabama courthouse


My husband, Ellis McClure, has done so much to support my genealogy research and business efforts. I have always wanted to help him to experience the same joy in finding historical documentation for his ancestors that I have felt in doing my own. On a recent research trip, we spent a day in Birmingham, Alabama because we have almost exhausted the records available online.  I am sharing how this whole process worked for us in case you need to duplicate it in your own research.

In researching my own ancestors, I have always reached a point where I had to consult records that were not made available online yet. The first place that I always check are the microfilms in the FamilySearch Catalog for the area I am researching. Since we were going to be traveling through Birmingham, I thought it would be more exciting for Ellis to actually handle the records. 

Preparing for our visit

Before we made plans to stop in Birmingham, I needed to make a list of which record types we would search for first. The most common records to start with are:
  • Probate - Looking at probate indexes determines whether or not your ancestor has a record there.
  • Marriage - Many times marriage record indexes are online.  Always check the original record.
  • Land - Check indexes to determine if a record exists. The original records often mention spouses or other family members.
I knew from stories Ellis and his father, Archie McClure, shared with me about Columbus McClure owning land in Birmingham that there would be land records. I also knew that Columbus owned land and property when he died in 1930. Next, we had to determine where these records were kept in Jefferson County.

I went to FamilySearch Wiki to read the article on Jefferson County, Alabama Genealogy resources. I was interested in learning about how to access land records. I read the section on Land and Property, but it only gave information on researching land grants and first landowners. The time period I was researching was between 1890 and 1930. 

Using a special genealogy search engine which filters out non-genealogical results that I created through Google for Genealogy Just Ask, I searched for Jefferson County, Alabama land records. The search  brought up the Jefferson County Courthouse website. The probate and land departments can be accessed from the top of the website under the "Departments" link.

The Land and Development Department did not house land deeds from what I could tell online.  I checked to make sure probate records were kept at the courthouse. When I clicked on the probate court department, the following page came up with a direct link to land records. 

I clicked on Land Records where I discovered the LANDMARK WEB database of land records. Unfortunately, the database only contained recent land records. According to the website, land records are kept in the Probate Department. I confirmed marriage records would be there too by clicking on the "Archives" link at the top of the page. I would just wait until we arrived to learn about accessing older land records. 

I always teach people that you are not only researching people. You are researching record types that currently exist. After confirming that we where headed to the right place to find documentation on Ellis' ancestors, we were prepared in advance to have success.

Arriving at the courthouse

We parked in the lot across the street from the courthouse. The first hour of parking is one dollar, and every hour after that was four dollars. 

After entering the building, We had to go through security scanning. The gentleman in front of us had something on his key chain that they considered to be a weapon. He had to take it back to his car. We left everything in the car except our phones, money, our research objectives on paper, and pencils.

We asked where land records were kept as we passed through security. They directed us to the probate department on the same floor. The archives for probate records was beneath the probate office down two flights of stairs. They were busy behind a counter when we got there. 

We saw a closed door with a sign marked "Research Room." I could not tell if we needed to have permission to go in, so we got in line to ask.

I asked where we would go to research land records and about the research room. They asked what we were trying to do. I let them know that my husband's grandfather owned land and that we wanted to look at land deed indexes. 

One of the people behind the desk said, "Oh, you are doing genealogy? Do you know what you are looking for, because we do not help people with that?"  I assured her that all I needed was to know where the records were kept. 

She seemed relieved, and pointed to the research room door. There was a room down a short hallway that had microfilm readers and computers with no instructions as to what to do next. I was expecting to find index books. 

We decided to check the computers to see if there was a database for old land records. We saw the database LANDMARK WEB where you can access land records from the 1990's  that I mentioned above.  I minimized the screen to see if there were any more databases on the computer, and we found another database where you could search for land records back to the 1890's. This is a screenshot:

We had to play around a little with the search criteria. We decided to enter the last name first and no year just so we could see all instances of Columbus McClure for every year:

As far as we could ascertain, such a search brings up every instance of the occurrence of the name separated by year and first initial of last name. We started searching records between 1890's and 1930 for Columbus. To learn more about each record, put a check in the box before it. Then click on "Display Document." 

That brings up a range of records to scroll through. It took us about 20 minutes to find this record because the names of the individuals on a land record did not appear in the search results. We had to click on each result, but this led us to an indexed page with Columbus' name on it. He is second from the top of the list:

Next, we needed to ask where the originals were kept. We found out that there was an entrance from this research room to the office behind the probate office help desk where we could look through land records.

Ellis was able to search the deed books using the information from the index: Volume 128; page 501.  We discovered that Columbus originally mortgaged land in December of 1923 and property and paid it in full in September of 1929.        

Screenshot of record in Jefferson County, Alabama Courthouse Deed Book 128, page 501 (Probate Office)

The land record mentioned a few of the lots that Columbus purchased, and it gave the plat map book and page number:

We have more great finds to share which we will tell about in the next post. It was so wonderful to hear Ellis exclaim: "This is the best day of my life."  If you have never been to the courthouse to handle the records that document your ancestor, it is an experience that cannot be explained and definitely worth it. 

I will never forget my husband's face and his joy in making this discovery in the courthouse and in the other courthouse discoveries we will share in an upcoming post:


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