Wizard keeps watch over nearly 200 years of Alachua County history
Published: Tuesday, April 30, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, April 29, 2013 at 5:27 p.m.
Hidden inside large, red books in the back of a small building off Depot Road are stories from Alachua County's past. They're sitting on shelves, collecting dust, waiting to be told.
Like that of a free black man who sold himself into slavery. Or a record, signed by Seminole Chief Micanopy himself, selling a child back to her parents. There's information that helped comedian Whoopi Goldberg find out about a long-lost relative.
For as long as there has been an Alachua County, the Clerk of Court has kept its history in the ancient records archive. And for the past 14 years, Jim Powell, also known as “The Wizard of AR (ancient records),” has been the keeper of the lore.
Powell, 57, and a handful of volunteers sift through marriage records, wills, deeds and other documents dating back to the 1820s. They transcribe nearly illegible handwriting from the fading pages and put the text online for anyone to read and search.
“It brings light to our past, to our families, to our communities,” Powell said.
They have unearthed stories such as the tale of Joseph Valentine, who went from free man to slave to lawbreaker to lawman to politician.
Valentine and his family were the only free blacks listed in the 1860 census of Alachua County. In 1862, Valentine, then 22, went before a judge to sell himself to a man named Philip Dell. His reasons are unknown, but Powell suggested it was likely difficult for him to find a job.
After emancipation, Valentine sometimes found himself on the wrong side of the law. In 1867, he was found in illegal possession of an unspecified weapon. Two years later, he was indicted for attempting to start a riot.
On multiple occasions, he was appointed as a constable, a temporary law enforcement job where he would help with jury summonses and gathering witnesses for court. In 1870, commission minutes show he was paid $34 as a constable for investigating two dead bodies.
Valentine later turned to politics and became a county commissioner in the early 1870s, when his name started appearing in the minutes of commission meetings.
“That's an American tale that's never been told,” Powell said.
In 1998, Powell visited the ancient records storage area where he stumbled across an old records book from the 1840s while researching his family tree. Finding it difficult to read the handwriting and decaying pages, he started typing out pages of it in his free time. J.K. “Buddy” Irby, the Alachua County Clerk of Court, was so impressed he offered Powell, then a construction worker, a job at the ancient records archive.
His job was “finding out what we have and making it accessible” by putting the records on the Internet, Powell said.
The first 50 or so pages he worked on related to a man named Gabriel Priest who, in 1835, narrowly escaped with his family when a band of Seminoles burned his home and his crops in Wacahoota hammock, south of present-day Gainesville.
He took nothing with him except some bedding and the clothes he was wearing, according to the claim he filed for compensation. People living in remote areas could get compensation from the government if Native Americans destroyed their home, Powell said. “The government thought that if Indians attacked, the homeowner would already be dead, and they wouldn't have to pay anyone back,” Powell said.
Powell later attended a genealogy conference where he heard a teenager talking about her ancestor, Gabriel Priest, and quoting information from the ancient archive website, http://www.clerk-alachua-fl.org/archive/.
Powell has frequently helped people explore their family trees.
Goldberg called him in 1999 to track down information on an ancestor, Clander Washington, who owned a homestead in the northern part of the county.
Powell surprised one man with the marriage certificate of his great-grandparents. The man thought that blacks weren't allowed to get married in Alachua County because there was no marriage book for blacks. In other places, including Georgia, marriages were recorded in separate books for blacks and whites.
“Race relations here were different,” Powell said. Alachua County had one marriage book for all races, and didn't begin recording race until around 1919 or 1920.
When Powell showed the man the marriage certificate, he was stunned. “He was almost in tears,” he said.
Sometimes, looking through the archives raises more questions than answers. That was true in the paperwork of a deal in which Chief Micanopy sold a 5-year-old girl back to her own parents for $140 in 1834. When Powell tried to find more information on the deal, such as how the chief came to own the girl, he was unsuccessful.
In the early 2000s, the records website began allowing people to register as an online volunteer to help transcribe pages. About 100 people have signed up to volunteer, but only seven are active, Powell said. People have signed up from as far away as Pakistan.
One of those volunteers is Karen Kirkman, 59, who started helping about two or three years ago.
“It's really addictive,” Kirkman said. She called it a hobby, how she unwinds after a long day. “We're performing a service for the future,” she said.
The other active volunteers are Sharon Wheeler, Charlotte Vallellanes, Kaley Behl, Lauren Wise, Sharon Bauer and Jack Waters.
Powell periodically posts updates on the Wizard of AR Facebook page showing each person's total page count. When Kirkman started, another volunteer already had 300 pages finished.
“I found myself trying to beat this other person,” she said. Eventually, she caught up. Now she has finished more than 5,000 pages.
Kirkman, Powell and the others have completed the transcripts for the minutes of every County Commission meeting from 1846 to 1992.
The records show that issues of the day for the Alachua County Commission in the 1880s are similar to modern times, Kirkman said.
Homelessness was a problem then, too. Alachua County, at least as early as the Reconstruction era, had a list of “paupers” who were entitled to a small amount of money each month from the county government.
The records tell of “Aunt” Milly Haile, a slave belonging to Thomas Haile, namesake of the Haile Plantation. After emancipation, she found herself homeless, without any means to support herself.
Thomas Haile, according to the diary of his sister Serena Haile, lobbied on Milly's behalf to the County Commission, convincing it to add her to the paupers list. The county gave her a stipend of $3 a month.
“She obviously meant something to the family,” Kirkman said.
In their free time, Powell and his family, along with members of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Alachua County Historic Commission, which Kirkman is part of, work on the Alachua County Virtual Cemetery Project. They visit cemeteries and hope to have a photograph and information on every tombstone in Alachua County.
Powell, Kirkman and the others have scanned about a half-million documents and posted the images online. Of them, about 15,000 have been transcribed and made searchable. They move quickly; in the past 60 days, almost 600 pages have been transcribed.
Technology has allowed the Wizard of AR to do his job more easily. When he started, he had only a cheap camera from Best Buy to take pictures of the pages. In 2001, he got a scanner and a new computer.
Powell and the volunteers spend hours poring over mundane-sounding records. They dig through books of property sales, marriage records, commission meeting minutes.
Deeds and mortgages, in particular, are dense sources of information, he said. “Most people don't understand how much information is in deeds and mortgages,” he said.
“There's so much history locked in (the records) that it's a shame to let them sit in the dark,” he said.
Mostly, it's dry reading. But occasionally, they find a story that just begs to be remembered.