One of the many types of records that can be beneficial for your genealogical search is court records. “Court records include information about adoption, debt, divorce, naturalization, lawsuits, guardianships and appointments. Probate records relate to the death of an ancestor and the distribution of their estate. These records often include wills, inventories, accounts, bonds, etc.” (from the PBS “Genealogy Roadshow” web page).
Why Court Records are Important
Court records are important on your family history journey because they inform you of family relationships, locations, land ownership, occupations, and descriptions of individuals. For those of African American heritage, court records are critical as they include slaves and slave relationships. Courthouses also can have the registration of free blacks as well as marriages and slave children (from “Genealogy Roadshow“).
Tips for a Successful Search
When going in search of court records it is best to have a plan. Below are some steps that will hopefully lead you to a successful trip to the county courthouse.
1. Have an Objective
Don’t go into a courthouse expecting to fly by the seat of your pants. You must have a clearly stated goal of what it is you are seeking when you visit so you are not wasting your time, or those who work at the Courthouse.
Information that you can find on your ancestors include:
- Your ancestor could have been a juror, witness, victim, defendant or plaintiff in a civil or criminal court case
- Naturalization applications
- Pension affidavits
- Divorce filings, separation or paternity claims
- Property records
- Tax records for personal property
- Estate records
- Vital records
All of the above were records that were at one time found at courthouses. Today there may be other places where you can find this information. Vital records, for example, might be found at county health departments, or older records may have been consolidated at the state capital (this is the situation for Ohio, birth certificates have no restrictions and can be accessed at our health department, however death certificates from 1908-1953 can be found on FamilySearch, 1954-1963 can be found at the Ohio History Connection, the state historical society, and you can purchase for $7.75 which includes tax; 1964-present are available at the health department of the county where the person died; birth certificates can be retrieved from anywhere in the state from 1908 to the present).
2. Do Research Before Leaving Your Home
When you are getting ready to do a courthouse visit, make sure you research where the records are before you go so you haven’t gone to the wrong place for the records you need. Most county courthouses have websites (or at least the counties do) and it will often tell you exactly where the records you need are located.
If the website is vague, call or even email the person you think lines up with what you are looking for and ask. I know last year when I went to Bedford County I had emailed someone in advance just to make sure I didn’t need an appointment before just showing up. I didn’t but they also told me (as I commented about how I was travelling from Ohio) that they had online access that I could also use for a fee. I was able to get a bunch of needed records about my ancestors that I could find there (and the ladies that work there were extremely friendly and helpful), but as I find other information for non-direct line ancestors, I keep a list so I can look those people up online.
But not everything may be in the courthouse, by calling in advance of when you’re going to be there, they may have records in a storage facility and by calling they could make sure what you are looking for is on-site for your visit.
Also, make sure you have done your due diligence with boundaries and where the information was located at the time you are looking for. Counties are formed all the time (well, not so much now but 150 years ago counties were still being formed within states). Make sure that information you are looking for is where you think it should be. I know in Pennsylvania Blair County was one of the latter counties to be formed in the south western portion of the state, so land and tax records of your ancestor in 1860 that is Blair County could be in Bedford County 20 years prior because Blair county was formed in 1846.
Lastly, make sure that some of your information is not already online with one of the subscription sites. As I mentioned before, Ohio death certificates can be found on FamilySearch from 1908-1953. Sometimes you have to go person by person because the transcribed name may not match up, but they are there (warning: they go in clumps via county and time of death in a year – so you may have a bunch of May deaths together and they are all arranged alphabetically by county, I would often just jump ahead every 25-50 names to get through counties I knew I did not need). Pennsylvania birth certificates from 1906-1910 and Pennsylvania Death Certificates from 1906-1967 can be found on Ancestry. Birth certificates from 1911-1914 can be purchased from the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission for $5 per certificate (I recently purchased my grandparents birth certificates in January of this year, my grandfather was born in 1912 and my grandmother in 1914).
3. Evaluating Your Finds
Remember, you are going to a courthouse to find court records and they will be riddled with legalese you may not understand. It may take a few readings to figure out the true meaning of the document, as well as figuring out the lingo of a hundred years ago. You may also have difficulty with penmanship, big words and bad writing can make for a big headache.
You will also want to make sure you record your findings, along with what you did not find. Sometimes this will be a clue as to where you can look next, or inserting it into a timeline may give you insight on why an event occurred (person moved, went to prison, etc.).
(More info on the above points can be found at Family Tree Magazine)
4. Manners Matter
In so many ways genealogy can be a casual hobby but when you plan on heading to the courthouse you should make sure that you dress nicely (casual chic would work great here, if not in a more professional manner) and that you show respect to those working. Some of the people you will be dealing with are elected officials, but more importantly these people are helping you, so make sure you go out of your way to be grateful for what they are doing for you.
(This last point I added from an article at GenealogyBank).
Enjoy The Moment
This might seem like an odd point but you are going to be messing with books and records that could be hundreds of years old. Even if they are copies, it can still be exciting to be working with these old records. Some may even have your person’s signature on them, and that could just be about as thrilling as it could be – especially if you are like me and find yourself having favorite relatives (I do).
Digging up information of any kind about your people is extremely satisfying. Enjoy the moment but make sure you stick to the plan you have laid out for yourself.
Stay focused and have fun!