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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in November 2013. It is an excerpt from their course US Court Records  by C. Ann Staley, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Contents

Courthouse Research Resources

When we do not reside in the area in which our ancestors were located, then we need to consider alternatives for getting as close to the original records as possible.

There are several steps that we should consider.

1. Conduct a survey of published indexes to court records and consider using:

  • online catalogues of large libraries
  • online catalogue of the Family History Library
  • PERSI[1] (book or online version)
  • Printed Sources: a Guide to Published Genealogical Records[2]

2. Seek options for viewing microfilm:

  • at local and state libraries or archives
  • via inter-library loan
  • renting via the local FamilySearch Center nearest your home
  • purchasing the microfilm from the appropriate agency

3. Search other online resources:

  • search for the county’s website and see what databases they have online
  • search the digital collections on the FamilySearch website (under “Records”)
  • using your favorite search engine(s), search for keywords concerning your ancestor and the record you are seeking; include words such as “database”, “digital image”, “court record”, etc.

4. Plan a research trip (and then go) to the courthouses in the area where our ancestors resided.

Pitfalls of Courthouse Research

Finding exactly where to search―some states do not have county courthouses; the records may be housed in districts, town halls, etc.

Some counties have two courthouses. Some records may be housed in an “old” courthouse and other records in the “new” courthouse. Some areas might have two courthouses housing different courts and, thereby, housing different records.

Is the county still in existence? You may not be finding information about the county because it was disbanded or merged into another county.

Ensure that you have the right county. Remember counties can have parents―the county/counties from which they were formed. You might need to search a county you have not thought of.

Are you looking in an area in which the city/cities are independent? They may have their own court systems and repositories for their records.

Before leaving on a research trip, do your homework. Check the county’s website to see where the records you seek are located, what days and hours are they opened and appropriate addresses and phone numbers.

Has any of the records been microfilmed or digitized and placed on a website that you can search before making a trip? Using websites like FamilySearch and the USGenWeb can assist your search.

Will you be able to review the actual books? One courthouse may have filmed their records onto microfiche while another will have very large, and heavy, ledger books. Can you “handle” either situation?

And what about those indexes? In her book Courthouse Indexes,[3]  Christine Rose provides examples for over 10 different types of indexes (and their variations) that might be found in courthouses. Know how to search and you might find your ancestors in the records.

In this day of “privacy”, know the state laws pertaining to court records for your research area. Do not argue with a court clerk, but do make your case firmly, as it applies to the current law regarding the right to see the records. You may have to speak to a supervisor.

Which brings up another point. The clerks are working on today’s records; they may not be familiar, at all, with older records. You may have to seek the help of an employee who has been in the courthouse a number of years in order to find the record(s) you seek.

Many states require local officials to maintain and preserve their records—historical and modern. All too often, however, the local officials disregard state statutes when they find their courthouse getting crowded with the old records. Sometimes the old records are fodder for a bond fire; sometimes they are hauled to the dump. Other records meet their demise when placed in storage in an abandoned building. This is not so much of a crisis when the records have been microfilmed and quality film exists for use by the public.

We’ve all heard horror stories of the condition of some of the local courthouses—records in the attics providing nesting material for pigeons and rodents; records in the damp moldy basement infested with insects and rodents.

It is obvious that when conditions such as these exist, researchers do not have access and the records will soon deteriorate to such an extent that they will have no value at all.

References

  1. PERiodical Source Index is a subject index to genealogical and historical periodicals created by the library staff at the Allen County Public Library and available online through HeritageQuestOnline (a library subscription site).
  2. Meyerink, Kory L., editor. Printed Sources: a Guide to Published Genealogical Records (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, Inc., 1998).
  3. Rose, Christine. Courthouse Indexes Illustrated (San Jose, Calif.: CR Publications, 2006).


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course US Court Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.

  • This page was last modified on 17 September 2014, at 19:19.
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