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Many of your ancestors will be found in court records perhaps as defendants, plaintiffs, witnesses, or jurors. They may have participated in cases involving probate, naturalization, divorce, debt, adoption, guardianship, licenses, appointment to public offices, taxes, civil and criminal lawsuits, property disputes, crimes, or other matters brought before a court. Court records can establish family relationships and places of residence. They often provide occupations, descriptions of individuals, and other family history information.
Utah's court system has been influenced by four governmental eras: ecclesiastical, provisional, territorial, and state. The following information will help you understand more about each era and its judicial court system. This section also describes records of the federal courts since 1896 and court information found in county government records.
Before the provisional government was organized, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provided the only government structure. Although this era officially ended in 1849, civil and criminal cases were handled in Church courts until about 1890, and until 1910 in some Utah communities.
Church court records are interfiled in Church records at the Church History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. See the Tracing LDS Ancestors for information about their Church records.
A legal history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830–1900 is in:
Firmage, Edwin Brown and Richard C. Mangrum. Zion in the Courts. Urbana Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1988. (Family History Library book 289.309 F516z.) This book covers the time period when Church and civil courts overlapped. It is indexed and includes a bibliography.
Provisional Government of the State of Deseret (1849-1850)
The provisional government was created to provide a temporary civil government. Under this government the Utah Supreme Court and justices of the peace, and county courts were created in January 1850. Alderman's, municipal, and probate courts were created in January 1851. Because of communication delays between Washington, D.C. and Salt Lake City, the provisional government continued to function for nearly a year after the Organic Act created the Territory of Utah in 1850. With the exception of a few scattered documents, the judicial court records for the provisional government do not exist or have not been located.
Territory of Utah (1850-1896)
When the territory was created in 1850, the Utah Supreme Court, federal district courts, county probate courts, and justice of the peace courts were established. They began functioning 22 September 1851.
This was an era of conflict between Mormon settlers and federal officials. Mormons tended to continue using the Church courts and local probate courts. Many polygamy cases of the 1870s and 1880s were drawn into the federal district courts.
Supreme Court. The Utah Supreme Court had jurisdiction over extraordinary writs and appeals from federal district courts. The Utah State Archives has the supreme court records. The Family History Library has:
State Department Territorial Papers, Utah Series National Archives Microfilm Publications, M0012. Washington D.C.: National Archives, 19--? (Family History Library film 491567.) These papers cover 1853 to 1873. This collection contains a few supreme court records that were sent to Washington, D.C.
Federal district courts. In 1850, the Utah Territory was divided into three judicial districts. Each county was assigned to a district. A fourth district was added in 1892. Judges held court on a rotating basis in the counties. The federal district courts had jurisdiction over criminal, civil, and common law cases, including chancery, mining claim controversies, naturalization, estate settlements, guardianships, adoptions, divorces, and violation of polygamy laws.
The following record covers the courts in Salt Lake City, Ogden, Provo, and Beaver. The record has many polygamy cases and various other crimes.
United States District Court (Utah). Case Files of the U.S. District Courts for the Territory of Utah 1870-1896. National Archives Microfilm Publications, M1401. Washington, D.C.: National Archives, 1985. Fold3.com $ Description has copies of the Utah Territorial Case files digitized from the Denver Branch of the National Archives, where the Utah State Archive records were transferred. films 1616325-62. These records are indexed by defendant and plaintiff on the first film. The index lists the individual's name, the case file number and the microfilm roll number. The cases were rearranged alphabetically by the initial letter of the defendant's last name then renumbered and are not chronological. See also FamilySearch Historical Record (digital) collection: Utah, Territorial Case Files of the U.S. District Courts, 1870-1896
The responsibilities of the federal district courts were transferred in 1896 to the state district courts.
Probate courts. The territorial probate courts were created in 1850 and were allowed to cover more than probate cases, such as naturalizations, adoptions, and divorces. They were given concurrent jurisdiction with the federal district courts in 1852. Appeals were sent to the federal district courts. The Poland Act of 1874 confined the courts' jurisdiction to matters pertaining to estates, guardianships, and divorce. The Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 revoked their jurisdiction over divorce cases. The probate courts were abolished in 1896.
Many of the records were sent to the county clerk. However, some early probate judges kept their records in their homes or offices. You may find a few of these personal collections at major Utah archives and libraries. Most are arranged by date and are not indexed.
One example is a journal of Elias Smith, a probate judge for Salt Lake County between 1852 and 1882. In his journals he wrote about the court cases where he ruled, and marriages he performed. It is not indexed. See:
Journal of Elias Smith of Salt Lake City, Utah. Salt Lake City, Utah: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1949. (Family History Library films 00424-25.)
Justice of the peace courts. Justices of the peace performed marriages and had limited jurisdiction for civil and criminal cases and small claims. Appeals were made to the probate courts until 1874 and to the federal district courts after that date. A justice of the peace could have served a county, precinct, city, or town. The territorial records overlap with the state justice of peace records described below. Many of the records have been destroyed or are difficult to locate. You may check with the court for the records. If they are not available at the court, the records could be with the personal papers of the justice of the peace. These may be found in libraries, family possession, or museums.
State of Utah (1896 to Present)
When Utah became a state in 1896, its judicial system included a supreme court, state district courts, and justice of the peace courts.
Utah Supreme Court, 1896 to present. The Utah Supreme Court is the highest state court. It has original jurisdiction over questions from federal courts. It hears appeals from the district courts, state agencies, and in some cases the court of appeals. Records are kept by the clerk of the Utah Supreme Court. Some supreme court records have been sent to the Utah State Archives.
State district courts (1896 to present). In 1896 the state was divided into seven state court districts. Through the years the district boundaries changed several times, and in 1988, eight districts were created. Branch offices for these courts are located in each county. State district courts have jurisdiction in all criminal felonies and civil actions. Domestic relations cases such as divorces, separations, child custody, adoptions, name changes, and will and estate settlements are also handled by these courts. Also, naturalizations are handled through the district courts.
The Family History Library has some records for the district courts. These includes the minutes for Uintah County for both probate and district courts. These are poorly indexed and arranged only by dates. They are:
Utah, District Court. (Uintah County). Minutes of the Probate Court and of the District Court, 1887-1915. Salt Lake City, Utah: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1966. (Family History Library film 481111 item 3.) The minutes include a wide variety of information. Most of the entries deal with wills, estates, and custody. One example from the minutes is a decision giving permission for a child to attend the Deaf and Dumb School for children with disabilities.
Justices of the peace (1896 to present). There are two classes of justices of the peace in Utah: county justices who serve in county divisions called precincts, and municipal justices who serve in cities or towns. Justices of the peace perform marriages and have jurisdiction in misdemeanors and civil cases of less than $1,000. Appeals are sent to the circuit courts.
Justices of the peace maintain their own records. These may be kept at the county courthouse or at the justice's home or office. By law, justices of the peace are required to give their records to their successors. An effective way to locate justice of the peace records is to contact the county clerk. The records of marriages performed by justices of the peace are in county clerk's office.
Federal Court Records (1896 to present)
The state of Utah is served by the United States District Court of the District of Utah, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals (changed to the Tenth in 1929), and the Supreme Court of the United States.To learn more about federal court records see the The United States District Court of the District of Utah. This federal court hears civil and criminal cases involving citizens of different states, interstate controversies, violations of federal statutes, immigration and naturalization matters, some civil and criminal cases where both parties have agreed to use the federal court system, and other matters.
Early records of the district court were sent to the National Archives—Denver Branch. Recent records are at the Central Division Office which also has the docket books from the 1920s to the present plus naturalization records.
Original court records are usually found at the county clerk's or court recorder's office. Check the Internet for the current addresses and jurisdictions of courts. City directories also give addresses and phone numbers for the courts. Many records have been sent to the Utah State Archives. The Family History Library has copies of some records. Court records available in the library are listed in the catalog under varying topics. Many times the records from the different types of courts are kept together and overlap time periods. Most records will be found under each topic they cover. They may be found in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog under:
UTAH - COURT RECORDS
UTAH, [COUNTY] - COURT RECORDS
UTAH, [COUNTY] - PUBLIC RECORDS
UTAH, [COUNTY] - DIVORCE RECORDS
UTAH, [COUNTY] - GUARDIANSHIP