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Sunday, Nov 18, 2018
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Will you find tantalizing stories in Harvard law books?

Regular readers of this column know that I frequently make references to the fascinating — and often shocking — details of family history awaiting those willing to wade through often hard-to-find published legal records.

Many family historians are intimidated or untrained in legal research and never dare to cross the threshold of a legal library. Thanks to Harvard Law School, we’re about to have access to an amazing legal collection — all from the comfort and safety of our home computers.

Harvard’s latest venture will digitize entire volumes of its 40,000 law books and make them available at no charge!

If you still aren’t impressed, how about this: The Harvard collection is the most comprehensive and authoritative database of American law and cases available anywhere except for the Library of Congress. This project will give researchers access to federal courts decisions and each of the 50 states’ court decisions. It has taken the Harvard Law School Library — the largest academic law library in the world — over 200 years to collect these volumes.

When she announced this “Free the Law” project, Dean Martha Minow said, “using technology to create broad access to legal information will help create a more transparent and more just system.” Perhaps she didn’t realize how exciting this would be to genealogists, or surely she would have touted that, too.

So, if consumers get free access, who’s paying the bill for this unbelievable gift? A private legal research firm, Ravel Law, is giving millions of dollars. Researchers will be able to access the digitized product at www.ravellaw.com.

These records will not appear overnight, but surprisingly they all are expected by mid-2017. The first records — from California — probably will go online this November. Harvard is using imaging equipment capable of scanning 500,000 pages per week.

The database will be totally searchable. Researchers will capture files by searching under a relative’s name or by a topic — such as divorce, slavery, murder, etc.

“The materials in the library’s collection tell a story that goes back to the founding of America, and we’re proud to preserve and share that story,” said Jonathan Zittrain, vice dean for Library and Information Resources at Harvard.

What I’m sure he didn’t say — but he could have — is that this collection will tell the story of many, many of our ancestors. These are not dry legal matters. An 1866 case in the Supreme Court of Georgia, George Eubanks v. Francis A. Banks, is a beautiful example of how much family history is stored in legal annals.

Alfred Eubanks, the son of Thomas Eubanks, died in Morgan County, Georgia, in the late-1850s. He didn’t leave a will, a wife or children, so his estate was to go to his siblings and half siblings. This case pitted Alfred’s two siblings, Ambrose and Asa, against his half siblings, George, David and Sarah.

Thomas Eubanks’ first wife was not identified in the case, but his second wife, Elizabeth, was identified as Elizabeth (also Betsey) Yarbrough and as Elizabeth Wilson. If Ambrose and Asa could make a case that their father’s marriage to Elizabeth was illegal, George, David and Sarah would be labeled as illegitimate. Illegitimate children at that time could not inherit from their half siblings.

Genealogical jewels found in this single case identified Betsey as the daughter of a Joseph Yarbrough and the sister of Frederick and Matthew. She had married a William Wilson in 1818 at her father’s home in Chatham County, North Carolina. William abandoned her less than a year into the marriage, which also produced a child named Isabella. Betsey waited for William’s return until 1828, at which point she married Thomas Eubanks.

Based on her testimony in 1866 that she was 59 years old, a researcher can project an approximate date of birth as about 1807. That would have made her 11 when she married Wilson. Was she really that young? Experienced researchers know that ancestors were notorious for not remembering dates correctly. Was that the case here? Interestingly, Betsey’s age at the first marriage was never questioned in this court case, but as good genealogists we know this is just another wrinkle as we continue to examine the fabric of Betsey’s life.

These legal cases — like other sources — will help us ferret out family secrets and relationships conveniently long forgotten or hidden. We can even appreciate the additional questions that will push us to dig deeper. And thanks to Harvard, you will be able to pursue answers in the comfort of your own home.

That’s what this Harvard-Ravel project means to genealogists. With cases like this awaiting a dedicated researcher, we book lovers probably will find it in our hearts to forgive Harvard for damaging all these books by cutting off the spines and feeding an estimated 40 million pages through a high-speed scanner.

After the materials are scanned, the loose pages are cleaned and vacuum-sealed along with their original binding. They are then placed in underground storage vaults in Louisville, Kentucky.

Sharon Tate Moody is a professional genealogist. Send your genealogical methodology questions and event announcements to her at [email protected] Past Heritage Hunting columns are available online at tbo.com, search words “Sharon Tate Moody.”

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