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 Texas : Features : Columns : All Things Historical

SCROLLING THROUGH HISTORY

by Bob Bowman
"The search system -- which has brought unbridled joy to genealogists and historians -- is believed to be the most comprehensive county archive system in Texas."
Bob Bowman
Neal Murphy typed in the name “Tom Burleson” on a computer in the San Augustine County courthouse and, almost instantly, some 51 cases involving the East Texas outlaw scrolled down the screen.

Murphy wasn’t using Google to search the internet. He was checking more than 1.5 million local records dating back to the early 1800s.

The search system -- which has brought unbridled joy to genealogists and historians -- is believed to be the most comprehensive county archive system in Texas.


It took two years for Murphy and three employees to feed every county document into the $450,000 system that holds everything from slave sale records to current court cases. Two Texas foundations, the Gill Foundation and the Summerlee Foundation, both of Dallas, shared the entire cost.

The county records are among the oldest, if not the oldest, in Texas. They date back to the days when Spain owned Texas. The oldest document, in fact, is a Spanish document executed in 1801.

The remarkable system had its genesis several years ago when the San Augustine Historical Foundation appointed a group of townspeople to explore ways to preserve the records and enable researchers to access them quicker.

Murphy, the son of former county clerk Cecil Murphy, was appointed to head the project. He remembers his father, who died in 1991, badgering the county to preserve the historic records as far back as the 1960s. “I think Dad would be pleased with what we’ve done,” said Murphy.

When Murphy types in a name, the 43-trillion-byte server immediately identifies all documents in which the name appears and what type of document it is. The search takes only seconds.

Out of the project has come rewards for thousands of families searching for their ancestors in East Texas.

When Murphy and his staff discovered that the earliest records -- particularly those before the Civil War -- contained deeds executed for the sale and purchase of slaves, he compiled a special book that lists every slave recorded in San Augustine County.

For black families, who have always had a difficult time researching their earliest ancestors because of poor records dealing with slaves, Murphy’s book has been widely welcomed. “For black families, it has become one of the most valuable set of records we have on file,” said Murphy.

One such entry showed that in November of 1848, Bailey Anderson sold to William G. Anderson a black family of ten. The family included Jesse and Lucy, both 35 years old, a set of twins eighteen years old, another set six months old, and four other children.

Other records have been even more revealing.

During the Civil War, documents show that some people paid others to fight in the war for them. Welfare records from the 1930s showed exactly what a person owned, whether the individual’s house was clean, and how many canned goods were in the kitchen.

In the 1800s, a woman demanded in her love letters that a man give her a Christmas gift whether he was involved in a divorce or not.

As one of the roughest counties on the Texas frontier in the 1880s, San Augustine’s records are filled with accounts of shootings, murders, robberies, drunkenness and other crimes.

The county was also populated by men who played dice in outhouses and women who made moonshine, according to the records.

All Things Historical
April 17, 2005 Column
Published with permission
(Provided by the East Texas Historical Association. Bob Bowman of Lufkin is the author of more than 30 books about East Texas.)


See San Augustine, Texas
San Augustine County Courthouse
 
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