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
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
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
- 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
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,
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
- Do speak
about your research objectives (no lengthy family
- 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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