Saturday, July 14, 2012

Debt as an unexpected research tool

     After 32 years of researching my ancestors, I've begun to focus on organizing what I've already done, how well I've done it (or not), making digital copies of various materials, and creating a system for finding my way through the mountain of data.  Along the way, I've discovered that, in my earlier race backward in time collecting ancestors, there are many instances where I should have slowed down and consulted valuable resources for a more complete picture of the people, places, and periods in history.
     A recent research trip to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City gave me an opportunity to take a second look at some better resources.  Instead of acting on my first impulse, which is to yank a book of abstracts off the shelf, and check the index for my surname (we've all done it), I cranked through an unindexed, microfilmed copy of probate records for the years 1804-1817, in the Westminster District of Windham County, Vermont.  Vermont sometimes has more than one probate district per county, as is the case here.  These are the records of events written as they happened, not a later, typed version.  My original intent was to find something about a particular probate, but found an unexpected bonanza by accident.
     I stopped randomly on the pages of  records concerning the estate of Dr. Levi Sabin, in 1809, which gave incredible details of the community.  Among the lists of assets were notations of amounts due the estate by various individuals.  There were literally pages of these lists.  I suspect that the doctor had performed medical services on credit, and these made up a number of  notes due at the time of his death.  At the bottom of one page, I found my ancestor, Selah Graves, owing $14.05.  On the same page is his wife Sabra's brother, Ralph Roundy, as well as a member of the Emory family, which is another family connection.  Other pages list allied surnames, many of which appear next in western New York, where the next generation settled.
     The lists are a perfect snapshot of who lived in the community of Springfield, Vermont in the early 1800s. A name found on something like this is a good way to place a family on their trek in and out of communities between census years.  The FHC film number is 29150.
     I was interested in Dr. Sabin to the point of looking further into his life.  A number of applications have been submitted to the Sons of the American Revolution, based on the service of his father, Elisha Sabin.  Levi Sabin was born in 1764, died in 1808.  His marriage to Barbara Stearns occurred in 1790, in Rockingham, VT:  they produced a large family.  His estate appraisal also gives a couple of pages of medical books.
     Being in debt isn't a pleasant notion, but in this case, it proved a surprisingly useful tool; I plan to revisit this source for more happy accidents.