Timeless Treasures: County Records from Early 1800s Found

On January 7th, 1818, Vanderburgh County was formed. However, a recent discovery by an archivist at the clerk’s office has found a way to tie the past 198 years together. While hunting down records to fulfill a citizen’s request, the archivist found two tin boxes stuffed with a series of records dating back to the county’s infancy.

Unfurled like a series of small scrolls, the 198-year-old records may be yellowed with time but they are still clearly legible. And to think, Amber Gowen, an archivist at the county clerk’s office, found them completely by accident.

In December, Gowen was sifting through the county’s off-site warehouse in search of some records needed to fulfill a citizen’s records request. In hopes of finding those records, Gowen picked up and opened two tin boxes.

Those boxes were labeled ‘miscellaneous.’

What appeared to be a random assortment of records turned into something that was nothing short of remarkable.

“I was definitely surprised. The oldest documents that we have handled on a frequent basis are dated 1819,” Gowen said. “I’ve seen literally a handful (of records) from the 1840s. To date all the way back to the founding of the county was pretty shocking. These are the earliest records I've seen."

While some of the records are from 1823, most of what Gowen found date back to the months that followed the county’s formation in January 1818.

One record in particular, dated March 11th, 1818, contains the handwritten oath of office for the county’s first set of elected officials. There’s also an acceptance letter from an appropriately named attorney.

“This one is from John Law,” Gowen said. “He was the first prosecuting attorney for Vanderburgh County.”

Not to be outdone, there are also records detailing  some property transactions involving Hugh McGary, considered by many to be the county’s founding father. Records detailing the first election held in the county were also discovered.

“What your ballot looked like; what the requirements were to run; what the requirements were to be a candidate, all of those things hadn’t been formalized yet,” Gowen said. “It varies by township. It varies by the person who wrote it down. It varies by the inspector who was recording it.”

The records even pre-date the country’s formal adoption of an official alphabet. Gowen, along with the help of a dedicated volunteer, use style guides from the early 1800s to decipher what was written. Some letters like ‘S’ and ‘L’ especially, were written in a dozen different ways in the early 1800s.

Once thought lost, the records were found largely in phenomenal condition because they were carefully kept in the air-tight tin boxes. The paper used back in the early 1800s is also devoid of certain chemicals that are used on paper today. This further helped keep the records in good shape, Gowen said.

“To know we still have some on hand that we can touch and that we can share with the citizens of the county was very exciting. Very exciting,” Gowen said. “That's why I called [Historic Preservation Officer] Dennis Au and made him come validate what I was seeing.”

Au compared it to being at a historian’s candy store.

These records still serve a purpose today as well. Many of them, especially the records detailing property transfers and purchases, are needed to establish property lines. The election results are also considered to be permanent records and must be kept.

Gowen and Au hope to feature the records as part of the county’s bicentennial activities in 2018. To do so, the Vanderburgh County Historical Society has donated money to help with preserving the newly-discovered records. The money will go toward the purchase of specialized archival materials, including acid-free folders and containers. Gowen hopes future grants will help with digitizing the records.

In the meantime, Gowen is carefully categorizing and properly cataloging the decades old records.

“Without the records, we don't have our past. If we don't properly preserve them, we won't have them,” Gowen said. “There's more to be uncovered for sure."

The clerk’s office is also spearheading another effort to categorize and index some of the county’s oldest naturalization records, election records, armed services records and marriage records.
 


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