Vigo County is benefiting from a project that will digitize probate records dating back to 1818, the year the county was founded.
The documents are contained in bundles, stored in large cardboard boxes stacked 6 feet high in rows and columns that fill an entire bay in a county document warehouse near 13th and Deming Streets in Terre Haute.
Michael and Ann Packham, residents of Utah, have rented an apartment in Terre Haute, where they will live until December. The two are on an 18-month church mission for FamilySearch, a genealogical online archive sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The nonprofit FamilySearch claims to have the largest archive of historical and genealogical records in the world, with more than 3 billion documents.
The couple — he is a retired band and orchestra teacher, while she is a retired accountant — initially went to Montgomery County in mid-July to digitize records.
They moved to Vigo County in mid-January to begin digitizing documents. They first digitized about 37,000 marriage licenses and wills before beginning work to digitize probate documents.
Their job is to document Vigo County probate documents from 1818 to 1935.
"It is estimated that by the end of the project there will be a million digital images," Michael Packham told the Tribune-Star.
The job will take 2 1/2 years. After December, however, another team will continue the work the Packhams have started.
The two are making about 1,500 digital images a day and strive to get at least 6,000 images done per week, working from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. They mail images, stored on a hard drive, weekly to FamilySearch's facility in Salt Lake City.
FamilySearch then archives the digital documents, storing them in a large mountainside repository vault in Utah, and sends a hard drive copy of the images back to Vigo County. Last week, the Packhams sent 6,533 images to FamilySearch.
The Packhams use a 37-megapixel Nikon computer-controlled camera, supplied by FamilySearch, to digitize documents. They flatten out the documents, often fragile, to remove creases and also use black colored pointers to hold down more creased documents. That is a FamilySearch system that removes unwanted hands or fingers in a photo and ensures all writing on the document can be seen and is legible.
"FamilySearch's objective is to gather documents from all over the world that can be useful in connecting genealogies, families together. It is a basic belief of our church that families are important, not only here, but in an eternal prospective," Michael Packham said.
"We digitize the image. Then the next step is someone (at FamilySearch) goes through the images and extracts the names. That allows someone to see online, for example, a 'Sally Pither,' born in 1835 in England. (FamilySearch) gives all the documents that could possibly relate to her. That is what FamilySearch is all about, to digitally search for this information," Packham said.
Probate documents show names, as well as list of assets, said Ann Packham.
"It is just interesting to know that your great-, great-grandfather had three cows and one plow or owned a store and had hundreds of yards of cloth," Ann Packham said. "The probate documents will also often say names of children, which are valuable to trace and put families together. Sometimes they will say a married name, like daughter Mary, formerly Mary Brown, now Mary Smith, so now you have her married name."
Michael Packham added that "the value of probate is to kind of fill in the holes of things. Say you knew your family shows up on a Census in Ohio in 1840, but you don't know where they went from there. If you ran into some probate record that listed your ancestor as being owed an amount of money from a probate in Indiana, then you know, 'Oh, I can look for them in Indiana.' It may give a clue to maybe search burial records in Indiana or other Indiana records," he said.
Probate documents can also show birth names and names of adopted children. "A probate might say 'Harry and Ann Smith' adopted a child and renamed her Sally. Her name before then was 'Margaret Biddle' and her dad was a resident of the county and gave her up when her mother died. That would all be in the probate record," Michael Packham said.
The Packhams are documenting their experiences in an Internet blog at packhamspixels.blogspot.com.