Thursday, January 14, 2016


Some time ago, I stumbled across a link at the Monmouth County Historical Association, which listed a number of sources, including this:

COURT OF CHANCERY, 1822-1828; John B. Innis vs Sarah Innis and John Summers, report of matters, [1822 Nov 9].

Well, Monmouth county is nowhere near Sussex/Warren county where my Summers family lived, and what was Chancery Court, any way?  I nearly skipped over this sideline clue but the Innis name was ringing a faint bell. I remembered finding a reference in Sussex county court files that referred to John B. Innis and wife Sarah vs John Summers. I never understood that reference, and the Monmouth reference seems strikingly similar. So I got online and ordered a copy of the Monmouth county case. The folks at MCHA were friendly, accommodating, and quick. They sent me the best genealogical Xmas present ever, a preliminary transcription of which can be found here.

There are two facets to this court case. One is that it brims with genealogical specifics. It names names, places, and dates - can't get much better than that. Here is the basic take-home pay from this document:
  • George Summers, son of John Esq., died 1 Oct 1814.
  • The wife of George Summers was Sarah Hoagland, and they had five children together, two of whom were twins.
  • The Summers family helped take care of Sarah and some of her children after the death of George until Sarah remarried to John B. Innis in 1818. For reasons not explained, however, Sarah then separated from Innis and again returned to the Summers family for room and board. At some point, Innis came to retrieve Sarah. The case had to do with who owed who what for her upkeep.
  • One of the witnesses was Sarah's daughter, Ann. Additional research has told us that Ann later married Alexander Innis and they joined the migration to Michigan.
Unlike most other genealogical sources, however, this one contains personal testimony from a number of witnesses, most of them from the Summers family. We get to hear about all manner of details from food and furniture and one particular cow, to how "the defendant John Summers frequently sent flower to Mrs. Innis by a black man". Then there's my favorite tidbit about the loom, the spinning of wool, and the making of sheets and blankets: "she wove 52 yards for uncle John Summers 30 for Mrs Innis and between 30 and 40 for her grandfather and 15 for Mrs. Lomeson and 17 for William Summers". Details like these abound along with sad observations like this one made by daughter Ann in reference to Sarah, "her mother was scarce of the necessaries sometimes which was the reason she assisted her".

It's been a very long time since I got to experience the very words, or very close to the very words, of the ancestors themselves. Testimony, it turns out, is like a second-hand letter filled with details and insights specific to the time, thus giving us some depth to the historical human experience, which is, maybe, not so different from our own.

This particular story is about one woman's loss, her destitution, her struggles to carry on in a family obsessed about financial justice, and her return to a second marriage that was apparently less than ideal. But at the same time, these testimonies also give us personal moments flung from 1820 to 2016: the picture of Sarah Hoagland Summers Innis and Ann Summers Innis Trim, mother and daughter, sitting together weaving. This is not a fact that requires citation; this is part of the precious legacy we can only hope to preserve.

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