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Professor builds portrait of Lumpkin's past

David Connolly 1
Dr. David Connolly, assistant professor of southern and legal history at the University of North Georgia, is uncovering a picture of Lumpkin County's past while organizing and digitizing old courthouse documents.
David Connolly documents
Some of the documents uncovered by Dr. David Connolly date back
to the establishment of Lumpkin County in 1832.

What began as a project to organize, preserve and digitally archive old Lumpkin County courthouse documents is taking on new meaning as a more comprehensive picture of the region during the 19th century is emerging.

Dr. David Connolly, assistant professor of southern and legal history at the University of North Georgia (UNG), began the multi-year project this summer with the goal of producing a searchable, digital archive for public access. Considering his background as a former attorney, he said he felt it would be a worthwhile project that would contribute to the community, advance historical knowledge, preserve important information, and generate research and publishing projects. Some of the documents are nearly two centuries old, going as far back as the establishment of Lumpkin County itself in 1832.

"I am discovering everything from basic lawsuits on promissory notes to criminal cases, divorce suits, libel and slander actions, administrative records, and old probate court documents such as wills and estate inventories," Connolly said. "Some reveal how life can be both painful and mundane. One item of interest was a very poignant contract in which a woman gives up her child to a couple so the child could be educated and properly cared for. I have even run across one or two personal letters later used as scratch paper by a clerk or lawyer for notes. There are tax bills, old ballots from elections, and many other things which only a lawyer — like me — could love, but when pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle, they become a picture of life in Lumpkin."

Categorizing and digitizing the documents also serves to protect the information from being lost in the event of a disaster. Last month, a fire consumed the Historic Hancock County Courthouse, destroying legal documents such as property deeds, birth and marriage certificates, and other records. Some of the documents dated as far back as 1795.

"David is preserving the history of Lumpkin County as a whole; these are very fragile documents he is working with," said Rita Harkins, clerk of Superior Court for Lumpkin County. "Also, having these documents archived online could mean more revenue for the county. His work has already been and will continue to be a huge benefit to our office."

David Connolly Rita Harkins
Rita Harkins, court clerk, goes through documents with Dr. David

Connolly's project consists of three stages. He is currently in stage one, which includes basic organization and creation of an inventory, with the documents arranged by date, court, and case type. He will then conduct a more detailed sort, taking into account the identification of parties involved and the cause of action, and will create an index. Lastly he will digitize the documents and create a database. Connolly said he is grateful for the support of Harkins and the staff of the clerk's office, who he said have been an essential component of his success.

"These documents provide a window into the social, legal, political, and economic life of the county and the region," Connolly said. "I estimate that there are at least 2,000 documents. If the money can be raised to purchase the necessary supplies and equipment for the creation of an online searchable database, the documents will be a valuable asset for historians, lawyers, genealogists, and those just interested in that time period without endangering the records themselves or requiring interested parties to go to the courthouse. I also hope this project will result in some publications as well as some internship opportunities for students."

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