Stumbling into a gold rush
It wasn’t until I began digging deeper into my Harrell family ancestors that I discovered a treasure trove of family history chronicled in Louisiana’s parish notarial records. Parish notarial records? Wha-a-at? Yep. That was my first reaction too. But as I examined them more closely, I sensed that these records might hold an extensive amount of valuable information about members of the Harrell family. This blog post describes how I learned to navigate and utilize the information recorded in these extraordinary volumes.
While searching for additional information on the Harrell family such as dates associated with life events and family relationships, I came across the collection East Feliciana Parish notarial records at Ancestry.com. As I began examining the pages of the first volume I looked at, I realized that I had encountered a category of records that was completely new and unfamiliar to me. If I was going to understand and utilize the information contained in these chronicles, I knew that I needed to learn about what they were as well as why and how they were created. My search for answers to these questions fortunately led me to Judy G. Russell, otherwise known as The Legal Genealogist. In July 2016, she wrote a series of blog posts describing the somewhat uncommon structure of Louisiana law and the highly trained notary who serves “as an archivist of the documents he or she creates.”
Digging around in the records
Once I had a better understanding of these notarial records, I began viewing the first few images of pages in Volume A. As you can see from the example below, each handwritten page is completely covered with script that is often difficult to decipher (see Figure 1).
After clicking through several pages, it appeared that I had a tedious and mind-boggling challenge ahead of me. If I was going to find the names of and any worthwhile information about members of the Harrell family within these pages, I would likely be forced to read hundreds of pages across several volumes. And this was just one of sixty-four parishes in Louisiana. There had to be a more efficient way of accessing this information. Thankfully, there was. After scouring through the card catalog collections in Ancestry.com, I located an index for the East Feliciana Parish notarial records. This made it possible for me to easily identify and navigate to my family members’ records (see Figure 2). Whew!
Striking it rich
As I began locating and transcribing each record noted in the index, I started to realize that Louisiana’s parish notarial records are an extraordinarily rich source of family history. Each notation documented details of marriage contracts, family relationships, property divisions, guardianship of minor children, etc. This vast wealth of recorded history was now accessible to me and I was thrilled to discover new details to add to Harrell family members’ profiles. But as I began transcribing a July 1827 notation for the estate of Levi Harrell (1785-1815), I knew that I had “struck genealogy gold.”
Because my branch of Harrell family ancestors is chocked full of guys named Levi, it often causes great confusion when trying to distinguish which one is which. The particular Levi Harrell, about whom this story is written, was a son of a man also named Levi known as “Fat Old Levy” and is one of my 4th great-uncles. He was born about 1785 in South Carolina and died in 1815 in Louisiana.,, These years are my approximations based on various historical documents commonly used by genealogists along with the fact that the last child from his marriage to Elizabeth Brian was born in October 1814.
Now the year and the location in which it is likely that Levi died had always struck me as being potentially very interesting. This notion became more interesting when I located records documenting that Levi and his three brothers, Samuel, Hezekiah, and Lewis, all served together in the War of 1812 as members of Captain Griffith’s Company of Mounted Rifleman. Hmm… Was it possible that Levi had been killed while fighting in the Battle of New Orleans ? Over the past couple of years, I’ve searched for a record/s that would answer this question.
And then… Last week…
There, buried in the East Feliciana Parish notarial records, was the evidence for which I had been searching (see Figure 3).
This entry, recorded on 08 January 1827, detailed the partition of several slaves among Levi Harrell’s co-heirs. It begins as follows:
“Whereas an amicable partition was made of the Succession of Levi Har
rell decd. (Who died during the invasion of Louisiana in the years 1814 & 
by the Brittish in the army at New Orleans) between the coheirs of Said
decd. Towit: Lewis Harrell who received negroes Tom Lane and Phillis…”
I had found it; a family history nugget of gold had been written in this brief parenthetical statement. Levi had indeed died while fighting in the Battle of New Orleans. Whether he actually died in one of the series of battles that took place between 14 December 1814 and 18 January 1815 or if he died later as a result of his wounds is unknown. However, this now becomes the focus of future research.
Hitting a “mother lode”
As I continued to read and transcribe this notarial entry, it didn’t take me long to realize that the nugget of information verifying Levi’s death was only part of the genealogy gold revealed in this entry. Additional pertinent details regarding family relationships, married names of females, names of minor children, and, sadly, the names of several slaves are recorded in this single notarial item. The table below shows the wealth of information revealed (see Table 1).
Wow! This one entry, written in less than thirty lines, is a splendid illustration of the wealth of family history buried within these volumes. Just imagine! A few weeks ago, I didn’t even know these rich historical records even existed. Now that I’ve found them, I’m off to dig around in the notarial records of other parishes hoping to strike it rich in family history again.
 Judy G. Russell, “The lingo of Louisiana Law,” The Legal Genealogist, 25 July 2016 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/2016/07/25/the-lingo-of-louisiana-law/ : accessed 05 March 2018).
 For a clear and concise explanation of Louisiana’s system of notarial records, see Judy G. Russell, “Noting the notary,” The Legal Genealogist, 26 July 2016 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/2016/07/26/noting-the-notary/ : accessed 05 March 2018).
 Court of Probates, East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, Robert Cochran and John Rhea (1824), Partition of land, 25 February 1824; “Louisiana, Wills and Probate Records, 1756-1984,” online database with images, Ancestry.com (http://ancestry.com : accessed 05 Mar 2018); the Cochran-Rhea record, p 1-2 in East Feliciana Parish, Notarial Record, Vol A-B, 1824-1832 collection, image #7 of 462.
 Court of Probates, East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, General Index to CONVEYANCES (2015); Louisiana, Wills and Probate Records, 1756-1984,” online database with images, Ancestry.com (http://ancestry.com : accessed 05 Mar 2018); the Harrell records, p 57-58 in East Feliciana Parish, Indirect Index, Vol D-J, 1824-1963 collection, image #407-412 of 462.
 ”Autobiography of William Harrell,” transcript, USGenWeb Project – Louisiana Archives Biographies of East Feliciana Parish (http://files.usgwarchives.net/la/eastfeliciana/bios/wmharaut.txt : accessed 10 October 2016), file contributed by Shannon Smyrl.
 “Mississippi, Compiled Marriages, 1800-1825,” database on-line, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 10 October 2016), entry for Levi Harrell and Elizabeth Brian, 03 March 1808, citing Jordan R Dodd, et. al.. Early American Marriages, Mississippi to 1825. Bountiful, Utah: Precision Indexing Publishers (19xx).
 Court of Probates, East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, No. 61, Dennis M and Mercy McClendon vs heirs of Levi Harrell (1825), 06 September 1825; “Louisiana, Wills and Probate Records, 1756-1984,” online database with images, Ancestry.com (http://interactive.ancestry.com/9067/007671534_00063 : accessed 16 October 2016); the McClendon record is imaged as p. 63 of East Feliciana, Probate Record, Vol A-B, 1824-1844 collection.
 Find A Grave, database with images (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/124446104 : accessed 09 March 2018), memorial 124446104, Mahetabel Hannah “Hettie” Harrel White (1814-1889), White Cemetery, East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana; gravestone photograph added by Bernie.
 “Index to Compiled Service Records of Volunteer Soldiers Who Served During the War of 1812,” digital images, fold3.com (http://www.fold3.com : accessed 07 March 2018), Capt. Griffith’s Co, Mounted Riflemen, Louisiana Volunteers, entry for Levi Harrell; citing National Archives microfilm publication Alphabetical card index to the compiled service records of volunteer soldiers who served during the War of 1812, M602, roll 92.
 Court of Probates, East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, Mahitabell Harrell et al. (1827), Partition of Slaves – Levi Harrell estate, 08 January 1827; “Louisiana, Wills and Probate Records, 1756-1984,” online database with images, Ancestry.com (http://ancestry.com : accessed 28 February 2018); the Harrell record, p 223-224 in East Feliciana Parish, Notarial Record, Vol A-B, 1824-1832 collection, image #121 of 462.
 Ibid., Transcribed by author.