One of the glories of the internet is that I can do some of that digging at home. More and more universities, state archives and historical societies are scanning and posting some of their documents online. I've mentioned before that the Library of Virginia's Chancery records have been enormously valuable in my research. Another site that has yielded some wonderful finds is the University of Tennessee's website Tennessee Document History 1796-1850 which includes transcriptions and images of 2,000 documents. There I found a 19th c. petition to abolish slavery from residents of Washington County signed by three of my great-grandfathers (one 4x and two 5x) as well as several other distant cousins and in-laws (shown below). Several of the signers were slave owners themselves.
|19th c. petition to abolish slavery, page 1|
My great-grandfathers' signatures are on the second page (below), in the bottom half of the right column - Jos Duncan Sen, Isaac Mulkey and Jonathan Mulkey. I'd claim the James Duncan in the first column as another great-grand, but there were at least two James Duncans in the area at the time. I got a chill when I first saw this - something about seeing their actual handwriting. The petition is undated and while the website dates it as about 1800, it was probably written a few years later. Isaac Mulkey was born in 1788. It's unlikely he signed this when he was 12 years old.
It's not quite the same as being able to handle the documents themselves, but far more convenient. Seeing these images, reading these documents puts my great-grands into an historical context that is far richer to me than birth or death dates. Finding that context is my greatest joy as a researcher.