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Courthouse Research

The records in county court houses and other local jurisdictions contain information about your ancestors’ day-to-day business. Deeds, wills, mortgages, marriages, probate records, court records, taxes and more were recorded in county records. The key to getting the most from county records is knowing where your family lived so you can discover where they went to transact their business. Remember political boundaries changed over time.

Learning About Your Family in County Records

  • Marriage records contain women’s maiden names, in addition to the marriage date. Sometimes parents’ names, the ages and residences of the couple, and possibly the place the marriage took place are recorded. There are other helpful clues in marriage records, such as the religion of the minister performing the ceremony.
  • Deed records show not only purchases and sales of land and other property, they often show divisions of estates among heirs. Tracing the land your ancestors owned can lead you to important clues about origins and relationships.
  • Sometimes a person left a will, a document that directed how his estate should be divided at his death. More often, people died intestate, that is, without leaving a will, and the laws of the probate court determined how his personal property and land would be sold or divided. In both cases, there should be a probate court file in the country records unless the person was very poor or the family settled the estate informally among themselves.
  • Studying tax records over the period of time your ancestor lived in an area can reveal a variety of details.
  • Civil and criminal lawsuits are filled with interesting material.
  • In addition, there are many other miscellaneous records in courthouses that can be helpful to you. Marks and Brands books, county court records and others can yield intriguing information.

Before you plunge into courthouse records, take some time and study the local history of the area where your ancestors lived. Examine information you have gathered from all sources and recorded in your genealogy software to see what additional information you might expect to find in county records. Use the “Plan” task pane in Family Tree Maker 2009 to list the information you want to find. Know what facts you need in advance of your research.

County records are available in places besides the actual courthouse. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) is undertaking a massive microfilming project of selected records from courthouses all over the United States. You may be able to borrow the film you need through the Family History Centers of the LDS Family History Library (see the previous chapter on libraries). State and regional archives may have copies of the LDS microfilm of county records. In addition, archives repositories may have additional county records, not filmed by the LDS, on microfilm.

County records have been a popular indexing and transcription project for many individuals and groups. These compilations make the records more accessible but you must remember these are secondary sources and if you find something of interest, you should go to the original record, the primary source. USGenWeb.org hosts genealogy websites devoted to particular states and counties.

Unfortunately, many county records do not exist because they have been destroyed by fire, flood, vermin, or neglect. Counties with significant record loss are referred to as burned counties by genealogists. Burned counties are a setback to researchers, but do not always present an insurmountable problem. Alternate sources exist for those missing records, such as copies of tax lists kept by state auditors, superior court appeal records, manuscript collections, private abstract companies, records of surrounding counties, and others. When you encounter county record loss crucial to your research, think of it as a learning experience, an opportunity to become a creative genealogist.

Your searches in county records will be aided by your understanding of both the court system and the land record survey system used in your area of interest. Court systems differ from state to state and from one time period to another.

A land survey system is the method used to divide land into identifiable parcels so it can be described in deed records. Two of the most common land survey systems are the rectangular survey system and the metes and bounds system. Paul Wallace Gates has written History of the Public Land Law Development, a very detailed book about the development of the United States land system and his book should be available to you in your local library or through interlibrary loan.

  • Briefly, the rectangular system is used from the Midwest through the western states and involves a grid of numbered ranges and townships superimposed on the landscape. A typical land description might read, “SW 1/4, Section 10, Range 11 West, Township 4 North, of the Fifth Principal Meridian.” Once the survey was established, the descriptions remained stable even though state and county boundaries changed.
  • The metes and bounds system uses a verbal description of boundaries, referring to water courses, natural features, and man-made markers. A typical land description might read, “Beginning at a red oak upon Roanoke River at letter A, John Smith’s corner, thence due North 344 poles to a pine (B), thence S83E 107 poles to a sweet gum...”

Both systems have advantages and disadvantages. There are other survey systems; these are the ones you might encounter first. Learning the system used in the area of your interest will help you understand the records you find. Land records can be found at county, state and federal levels.

Visiting a Courthouse

Use published secondary sources first—those in print and on the Internet. Check USGenWeb.org for your county of interest and see what’s available there. Google the county to see what turns up.

Then use the Family History Library’s microfilm rental system to get to the county records you need—check their Locality Catalog. When you have exhausted those sources for county records, it’s time to plan your visit to a courthouse. Going with a friend experienced in courthouse research is a wise idea, but even a beginner with prior study and a plan can do successful research in a courthouse.

Know what you want to know before you go. You may browse after you get there, but you should have a definite plan about the items you want to find. If you need a copy of a very specific document, you may be able to call, e-mail or write the proper county official and obtain what you need.

When you decide to visit a courthouse, check online to see if there’s a government website for that county. Or call in advance and inquire about business hours, holidays, renovations and other activities that might close the records to you. Call again just prior to leaving if it’s a long trip—you don’t want to arrive and find a black wreath on the clerk’s door that says the office is closed for the staff to attend the funeral of some prominent county official who died two days before your visit. Election day, just before and just after, is a poor time to visit.

In the courthouse, most records are in large, bound volumes kept through the years by officials charged by law to maintain them. The old books contain handwritten copies of the papers filed in the clerk’s office. The signatures in the books are not the signatures appearing on the original documents; they are copies made by the clerk. After the original documents were copied into the books, they were returned to the appropriate person, or filed in packets at the courthouse. Documents relating to a civil or criminal court case, probate court case, or chancery (if the state had chancery courts) case were usually folded and filed in paper jackets called packets. Those packets contain the meat of the information; only summaries appear in the large books. Ask where and how the case file packets or “loose papers” are filed. Be aware, however, those loose papers are the first thing the clerk throws out when storage space gets tight, and they make ideal termite fodder.

Most of the record books have some sort of index. Study the indexing system but do not rely entirely upon it. The record you need may be indexed under a name you’re unfamiliar with. Knowing the names of the people associated with your family, the people who migrated to the area with your family, appear near them in census records, and married into your family, that is, the people in your kinship group, will help you find “hidden” information in county records about your family. These people acted as witnesses to legal documents, served as administrators of estates and guardians of minor children, and bought and sold land with your ancestors.

When you arrive at the courthouse and find the office that houses the records you require, remember you are probably not a taxpayer in that jurisdiction and you are interested in records not often used by the clerk’s staff. Our wonderful democratic system allows us to elect a brand new courthouse crew periodically and while the records may still be there, the people who originally filed them usually are not. Records that are not used on a day-to-day basis may be filed in an inconvenient place (think basement or attic), possibly unknown to the present staff.

Often the office personnel will be very friendly and delighted to have an out-of-town or out-of-state visitor. The clerk’s staff may be even more receptive to your needs, if you observe a few of the following do’s:

  • Do dress in a reasonably dignified manner (no party animal t-shirts or swim suits, please).
  • Do leave small children elsewhere.
  • Do speak briefly about your research objectives (no lengthy family stories).
  • Do use courtesy, and complain about nothing.
  • Do expect photocopies to be expensive.
  • Do your homework and know some basic information about the land survey system and court system used in the area so you will understand the answers to your questions.
  • Do remember to express your thanks for assistance so the next genealogist to visit might receive a warm reception.

Take thorough notes and remember to make source citations. When citing to courthouse records, write the precise title of the record, give significant dates, list the location of the record, and the form (original or microfilmed) you used.

Remember the Neighbors

A reminder again, while you are searching county records, be alert for the names of the neighbors and allied and associated families you have been recording for your family of interest. Notice who witnessed deeds and who performed marriages for your family. If you sift through county records for one individual, you may miss important clues found in records left by friends, relatives of a different surname, in-laws, church brethren, business associates, and others.

Pointers to Other Records

County records are very useful in themselves, but when used in conjunction with other records, they help contribute to a meaningful picture of your ancestors. A will you find in the courthouse may lead you to cemetery inscriptions, funeral home ledgers, newspaper obituary files both in the place of death and previous place of residence, church minutes, fraternal organization records, and the family Bible.

No set of records should be used in isolation. Always think creatively about what other records might have been created, then look for those records.

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