The archives may be filled with records, but it is an empty place without people. There are few people more important to the department than volunteers. The archives cannot function at its best without them. If you have an interest in volunteering, an interest in meeting and helping others, an interest in helping preserve old documents, please consider working with us in the archives. We think you will enjoy the experience.
There are opportunities to work in the Reading Room where you can help researchers. Here you will have the chance to meet people from all over the country. If you prefer working behind the scenes, there are many things you can do. Experience some time travel in working with documents from another century.
Tennesseans are not called citizens of the “Volunteer State” for nothing. So we hope you will consider volunteering in the archives. If you are interested, please contact Ned Irwin by phone at (423)753-0393 or by email at email@example.com.
To see photographs of the volunteers and staff at work, click here: Volunteers and Staff.
Archives’ volunteer, Nina Langley shares her story about how she first discovered our office and the treasures within. Enjoy!
A Story of Discovery in the Archives
By Nina Langley
I could hardly believe my eyes! There, placed in front of me, was a stack of documents. The papers were yellowed in the way that hinted at their ages. The first one was a summons. More than a century before, it had been folded, no doubt to fit into a pocket. Those creases remained to this day. They were stained by rain or, perhaps, with sweat from the sheriff’s deputy that had ridden his horse five miles from Jonesborough to serve it. This summons had scrawled cursive-handwriting ordering one of Washington County’s early settlers to appear in court. A penciled signature was the evidence that it had, indeed, been served. More than a century later, I was holding this simple document that was a time capsule and glimpse into the lives of these settlers. It was intriguing on so many levels.
This was my first experience visiting the Washington County Archives in downtown Jonesborough. I had recently moved to Jonesborough to be near family and had fallen in love with Tennessee’s beauty. Upon meeting my elderly neighbor, I learned that our acreage was once part of her family’s farm. I was captivated as she described her memories on the farm and its past boundaries. She also showed me where the remnants of an old wagon trail were located in our woods! It was used by farmers long ago to go to church. I wondered if it was possible to discover the names of these wagon-trail-farmers and pioneers.
So, on a lark, I set out to do this. I went to the local library. They have a wonderful genealogy section. Then, I went to the old Jonesborough courthouse. My world changed forever when I was introduced to those dusty, old deed books. I researched the chain of property deeds working backwards from my own. I eventually worked back to the oldest deed books, which are so fragile that only a clerk is permitted to handle them. I was hooked. Not only did I enjoy learning the names of the past property owners and how the property boundaries grew as I went backwards in time, but I enjoyed the hints about past court cases and mediations to resolve old property disputes. Like a soap opera unfolding, I wanted to know all about these cases. I asked the clerk where the records of these old court cases were kept. That is where the Washington County Archives comes in.
The Archives are just two doors down from the old courthouse. They had most of the documents and books referenced by those deeds, and I was allowed access. These lawsuits revealed that not much has changed with testimonies that seemed to reveal backstabbing, false witnesses, and double-dealings. Other documents detailed everything from practical matters – like the designation of well rights and timber rights – to securing life estates for elderly parents and gifts of land for their children.
What a fun and interesting endeavor it was to research our land. The research was greatly enhanced with intimate details from those wonderfully old, yellowed documents and record books carefully preserved for you and me at the Washington County Archives. Though I do not have ancestors from this area, researching our land’s past-owners gifted me with a special attachment to our land and to Tennessee.
I am proud to say that because of access to Jonesborough’s oldest documents, I was able to learn the identity of our property’s original owner. His name was William Thornton. He was a Revolutionary War soldier, who received a land grant from the State of North Carolina – this was before Tennessee became a state. Thornton entered the land – three hundred acres- in 1778 and was issued a warrant in 1784. The grant was finally recorded in Deed Book 4, page 145 on November 10, 1784. It had taken five years and eleven months to finalize that grant.
So, there it was. I had found my answers. I had learned the names of the wagon-trail farmers and the pioneers that came before me. When I began this endeavor, I never expected to be able to trace the origins of our property all the way back to the birth of our state or our nation, but I did. With amazement, I am lucky enough to call this beautiful land, framed by mountains and meadows, my home. My name has become part of this property’s history, its paper trail, which began with William Thornton in 1778.
Betty Jane Hylton
Janette Foster Guinn