Old records, new storage ~ Circuit Court records get the digital treatment

Rebecca Clayton was hired last year to catalogue and digitize all the old Pocahontas County Circuit Court records. Here, Clayton shows an unfurled record which includes a hand-drawn survey map of a tract of land in Marlinton. S. Stewart photo

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

On the first floor of the Pocahontas County Courthouse, there is an office that formerly served as the office of the Magistrate Clerk. Inside that office, there is a door that leads to what feels like a small closest. And inside that “closet” you will find floor to ceiling rows of drawers – known as cans – filled with circuit court records from the 1800s and 1900s.

In an effort to preserve the records and make them accessible to the public, Pocahontas Circuit Clerk Connie Carr applied for and received a grant from the West Virginia Division of Culture and History to get the records digitized.

Since last September, Rebecca Clayton has been working on scanning these records and creating a database for present and future generations to view.

“I’ve just been in my own little world back here,” Clayton said of working in the office. “I thought it sounded really interesting. And it is. It is very interesting.”

Working with the delicate records, Clayton has come across tidbits which give a glimpse into life in Pocahontas County – when it was part of Virginia and the early days of the formation of West Virginia.

Tucked away in what looks like a closet are floor to ceiling rows of drawers – or cans as they are known – which contain the Pocahontas County Circuit Court records from the 1800s and 1900s. S. Stewart photo

“The very oldest complete record that was actually filed here was 1824,” she said. “However, this 1833 case had been going on for a number of years. It started in, I think it was 1821, when the event that was being sued over occurred. Parties in the case died and it just kept going and going, but it was quite gruesome.”

Cases were much different back then, as Clayton discovered. She said most cases involved debt collection or land transfers from one individual to another. She has yet to discover many criminal cases.

“Most of the cases are debt issues,” she said. “Most of them, you don’t know what was bought or sold or not paid for – you just get legal language, the word formulas. They’re all the same.

“This morning, [I had one] – there was a dispute – Benjamin Harold hired William Snyder to take some of his cattle to market in Richmond [Virginia] and he did and came back with the money, but there were expenses along the way,” she continued. “There’s a list of expenses that is really interesting. They just needed a wide variety of odds and ends on their trip.”

Another case that stood out to Clayton involved two businesses, and the case included an inventory of what each store had.
“Part of the file was a complete inventory of a dry goods store in Big Springs,” she said. “Every single thing in detail, like how many yards of this fabric and how many yards of that fabric. Real specific descriptions of everything.”

With the debt issues, Clayton explained that during that time, it wasn’t that individuals didn’t pay their bills. It was that they didn’t have the currency to do so in a timely fashion.

“That seemed to be a real common problem that they had here,” she said. “In the 1840s, there was no currency. [Then President] Andrew Jackson didn’t approve of paper money and they closed down all the federal banks. There wasn’t coinage for the economy to handle, so there was a constant lack of ways to pay.

“There were all of these cases where people were exchanging IOUs that they had gotten from somebody else and, eventually, it would pass through three or four sets of hands,” Clayton continued. “Somebody would sell to somebody in return for an IOU and then pass it along so many times that people would say, ‘I’ve never done any business with you.’”

Along with handwritten documents for each case, there are records that include hand-drawn maps for surveys and land transfers.

“There isn’t all that much beautiful handwriting,” she said. “The documents that come from Richmond are usually really pretty. Local documents, less so.

“When a survey was ordered, they had to make five copies, so there are five copies all folded up and put in there,” she said of one document.

As part of her job, Clayton is scanning the original documents into PDF form and is also creating a spreadsheet with the information included in the documents to make a searchable database.

She has been so engrossed in the work and learning about the lives of Pocahontas County’s founders, that Clayton has taken the information and created family trees as a way to keep families straight.

Clayton had an account with Ancestry.com for her personal family tree and decided to use the interface to create more for the families she was learning about through her job.

“One day I started to wonder about the relationships of some of these people because a lot of the court cases have to do with wills,” she said. “Just trying to figure out who is supposed to get what. I started making family trees for all these people I was trying to keep straight in my head, and I just got into it more and more.

“It’s turned into a soap opera for me,” she added, laughing.

At this time, Clayton has 11 family trees on her Ancestry page – only one of those is connected to her own family.

After a year of scanning, Clayton is finishing up the records for 1856 and said she has gone through 120 misdemeanors and fewer than 10 felonies.

She has no idea how far forward the documents go, but she knows there is a long road ahead when it comes to sifting through the records and digitizing them.

“I don’t expect to live long enough [to finish] just because as we’re getting up into the 1900s, it’s much denser,” she said. “I’m not sure what the newest thing in there is. At one point, I was going through looking for that and I’m just not sure when they stopped using this filing system. It’s not very carefully arranged anymore.”

Once the project is complete, the old records will be stored on the new WV E-File/CourtPLUS Vault which will house all the circuit court records for the entire state. When the Vault is finished, the records will be accessible online for the public.

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