In March of 1830, sixteen years after Alexander Huston died, John Huston petitioned the Court of Common Appeals for right to divide his father’s land amongst his father’s heirs.[i] The act set in motion a five year process involving over 95 heirs. A gift to future family historians, it outlined familial relationships, residencies, and even some clues to general birth and death dates. Last month I received a copy of the original record from the Montgomery County, Ohio Records Center.
Thirty-nine pages long and handwritten, it covered a five-year court process all shrunk during copying from ledger size onto 8×11 paper. It was a monster to read. After a quick perusal, I began transcribing the record. While I’ve transcribed many shorter handwritten records, this job proved daunting. Okay, truth be told, I hated every moment of it, only dragging my pickled brain from the brine when an occasional tidbit of historical value presented itself. But true to my gift for tenacity, I prevailed…well, sort of. Here is what I learned.[ii]
- Decide your purpose ahead of time. This requires two understandings: what you know and do not know about the document, and what you want your audience to know. I started out thinking I wanted every word transcribed. Ten tedious pages in, I discovered that was not true. The document was repetitive, filled with legal jargon, saith’s and aforesaid’s, and errors (the scribes even had a hard time remembering the names and spellings of all those heirs.) So I reevaluated my purpose. I wanted to summarize logically what was in the document including interesting historical information and without sacrificing the timeline and essential elements. Here is one essential I had always wondered about. Why, after 16 years, was John ready to proceed against his mother, Mary Ann?
“That great waste has been committed upon the premises by said McGraw (sic McGrath) by cutting and felling valuable timber; That said McGraw has been in the habit of falling valuable oak timber in large quantities for the purpose of providing the bark to sell to Tanners; … Your petitioner prays that said Alexander (sic Henry)McGraw and Mary Ann his wife who was entitled to dower in said premises maybe made to account for the waste and damage done to said premises, and for the rents.” Pg. 65
- Tackle the task in no more than three hour bursts. The words begin to blur and you get lax if you go too long. You might skip over a name, a line, or an important detail like this reference to the age of Edward Huston who petitioned the court to allow him to keep the 50 acres his father had informally bequeathed him.
“that he this defendant was twenty one years old in seventeen hundred and ninety four. His Father Alexander Huston proposed to him that in as much as the farm was new and required much labor, to improve it, and his other sons had left him being the same premises mentioned in complainants bill, that if he this defendant would stay and work for him, he would give him fifty acres off the said …of land. This defendant did then again said work for his Father six years faithfully; and his Father secondly did measure and mark out fifty acres off of said tract, and this defendant secured in the possession of the same. His said Father promised to …to deed to him foresaid premises; but in the late war (note: of 1812) this defendant was out on a …duty on the frontier and his Father died in his absence, …This defendant states that his six years labour at the time he performed it as of on said …at the bequest of his Father was well worth one hundred seventy dollars a year and his clothing was of the shabbiest kind flax and …in the summer and dear skin in winter …” Pg. 73
- Record pagination as you type it. Otherwise you have to go back and do it anyway. (Yes, I did.) You need that information to record evidence and revisit the document for clarification. Consequently I was able to return to page 83 of the document and transcribe the following, only alluded to in my summary. From it and the fact that the previous term was in September 1831, I deduced that my 4x great-grandmother died between September of 1831 and March of 1831, information new to me.
“And afterwards, to wit, at the March term Anno Domini one thousand eight hundred and thirty two, the death of Sarah Oswald one of said defendants was suggested.” Pg. 83
- Summarize, list questions, and outline discoveries along the way. (Of course I didn’t!) Thoughts percolated through my brain and a few stuck. But what of those that drifted out unmet? Here are two I still remember: one to research and one answered.
Where exactly are the two tracts of land owned by Alexander Huston, my 5x great-grandfather?
“to wit, the west half of section thirty in town (ship) two of range six, lying between the great Miami River and the Virginia Reservation, which tract was conveyed to him by President of the United States by patent dated July twentieth eighteen hundred and twelve. Also of another tract of land patented to him by the President of the United States on the twenty third day of October in the year eighteen hundred and six containing one hundred and forty seven acres and thirty hundredths of an acre to be laid off on the east end of the south half of lots on section number thirty of township two in range six between the great Miami River and the Virginia Reservation , both tracts situated in said County of Montgomery and together make the whole of said fractional section number thirty.” Pg. 61
And who was Henry Stoddard? This man diligently and persistently found over 50 heirs of Alexander Huston residing in Virginia, Maryland, Bedford County, Pennsylvania, and counties all over Ohio and bought out their shares, thus acquiring over 180 acres of land. With a little help from the Internet, I answered that question. Henry Stoddard (1788-1869) was a founding father of Dayton, Ohio. An attorney, he was related to General William Tecumseh Sherman and often worked with Sherman’s foster father, Thomas Ewing.He was elected director of the first bank of Dayton, the Dayton Manufacturing Co. opened in August 14, 1814, and was later employed as their attorney for $50 a year beginning in 1833, concurrent with the John Huston vs Henry McGrath petition.
These connections to a larger history, found in the lives of ordinary people, always excite me. At least, when the tedium of slogging through 15,000 words is over and the analysis begins. So we come to my last recommendation:
- After completing the task, step away. That poor tired brain needs time to refocus and digest the information. Then, with a depickled brain, return to wonder at the history it represents.
But if YOU are interested in seeing what you might uncover, check the material below.
[i] John Huston vs. Henry McGrath, Chancery Records; Records Center and Archives, Montgomery County Reibold Building 117 South Main Street, 6th floor, P.O. Box 972, Dayton, Ohio 45422-1110
[ii] My summary can be found here. Summary from the Chancery Record of Alexander Huston filed 7 March 1830