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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 ($).
Strategies and Finding Aids For Successful Use of Courthouse Records
Strategies for Success
If we are to enhance our research using court records, we will need to make a habit of traveling, when we can, to the local courthouses. When we arrive at a courthouse, we need to take time to acquaint ourselves with every nook and cranny—pick up the volumes and look at their content. I’m sure you’ll be as surprised at some of the records you’ll happen upon. Make careful notes of your findings so that you’ll be better prepared for your next visit.
As difficult as it may seem, we need to remember that the court clerk and other office staff are hired to perform present day duties. They may not be familiar with the old records or where they might be located. It is best to disturb the staff as little as possible and as painful as it may be, we should not go into explanations of our ancestors or their exploits. Remember, the court was never intended to assist genealogists or historians.
We also need to:
- study our geographic location and learn the terminology used in the courthouses of that location.
- study our geographic location and carefully note the changing boundaries.
- visit the courthouses in our geographic area of interest, if at all possible—a good number of courthouse records may not have been microfilmed.
- use PERSI and other published indexes to help determine if our ancestors appear within the indexes.
- persevere, even if our ancestors do not appear in PERSI or published indexes.
- take down the names of everyone on the list when we find our ancestor on a list of petitioners, jurymen, or road workers (men lived on the roads they maintained), remember that the community is an essential part of our ancestors’ life style.
- be sure to record the complete source citation of your data as well as the correct date of the event.
- visit a law library to study the historical judicial background of our ancestral homes, and the law of the period.
Some additional thoughts to keep in mind:
- Where do you need to search? Some states do not have county courthouses; the records may be housed in districts, town halls, etc. Some counties might have two courthouses―an “old” and “new” courthouse. In other areas you might find two courthouses housing different courts and, thereby, housing different records.
- 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.
- 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, 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.
- Check the local newspaper for items concerning court records. You may have to look in the newspapers of adjoining larger cities. Remember, when a courthouse burned, check to see if the newspaper printing company did also? If not, you may have stumbled upon a goldmine. One problem is that references to court items are not normally indexed.
- For instance, in the Mobile Daily Register (Mobile, Alabama), on Wednesday morning, 24 May 1876, if you were reading page 1 you would find the Legal Notices for the city, county and state and information on the City, Circuit and Mayor’s courts. They contain accounts of the proceedings taking place and those on the docket for the day.
- Read as much as you can about the courts and their records, in general and for your area of research. One recommendation is to read “Chapter 7, Court Records” as found in The Source. There are, besides the narrative, a number of very useful tables and an extensive bibliography. For instance, the first three tables are:
- Table 7-1 A Checklist of Documents Produced by Probate Courts
- Table 7-2 Ages of Legal Action
- Table 7-3 Types of Court Records and the Forms They Take
Interpreting the Records
Once we have located a particular court record it is important to take our work to additional levels. For each piece of documentation that we collect, we need to evaluate, transcribe, and make some notes.
1. Evaluate the reliability of the document.
- Is the document an original or a derivative?
- Was the document prepared close to the time of the event or does it rely on many or several years of past memories?
- Does the document contain information that conflicts with other data we may have collected? If so, that conflict needs to be resolved.
- Would bias (e.g.,monetary awards or personalities)taint the reliability of the information?
2. Transcribe the document paying careful attention to
- details, particularly as they pertain to names, dates, and places.
- terminology—do we understand the meaning of the words or phrases used in the document?
3. Collection—have we collected the information accurately and included a source citation?
4. Have we gotten as close to the original document as possible?
5. Prepare a brief commentary describing the value of the record regarding primary and secondary information, remembering that most records to not exist in a vacuum.
6. Prepare a brief research plan from the data collected in the document.
Each and every one of us needs to pay attention to detail and make an effort to produce quality work. To that end we should be acquainted with the elements discussed in The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual.
- ↑ PERiodical Source Index, created by Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, Indiana.
- ↑ Rose, Christine. Courthouse Indexes Illustrated. San Jose, Calif.: CR Publications, 2006.
- ↑ Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, editors. The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy.Third edition. Provo, Utah: Ancestry, 2006.
- ↑ The Board for Certification of Genealogist. The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual. Salt Lake City: Ancestry(R) Publishing 2000.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.
- This page was last modified on 3 April 2014, at 20:58.
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