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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 ($).
Additional Court Records
Based on the statutes (laws) created by the states, as discussed in Module 2, the courts have many functions. Two of those functions, to act as a record keeper and registrar for certain events, permits, licenses, and other activities, are based on those laws. For instance, a state law governing the issuance and fees paid for a fishing permit fall to a local court for compliance.
Under this category―acting as a record keeper and registrar―there are some court records that we, as researchers, already use routinely—vital records, wills, and deeds. But if our research stops there we are doing ourselves a great disservice. Court records will often establish family relationships, places of residence and occupations and provide excellent socio-economic data on families and communities. Our ancestors will appear in the court records as community officials, jurors, witnesses, plaintiffs, or defendants. In addition, our ancestors will often appear as participants in activities involving settling debt disputes, paying taxes (or evasion of same), property disputes, laying out roads and fences, surveying, participating in military functions, divorce—the list goes on.
For a nice overview of the colonial courts and their records, please see Attorney Benjamin Spratling’s discussion in Printed Sources.
Records and Registrations
In this section we will concentrate on some of the records produced by the court system when acting as a record keeper and a registrar. Many of us have New England ancestry, so we will also be looking at the New England Record Keeping system.
Time and space does not allow for a comprehensive discussion of these delightful records, so we will concentrate on just a few of them. You should see if your local courthouse houses any of these records which include (but not to the exclusion of others):
- Alien Registration Records
- Apprenticeship Records
- Body Transit Records
- Cemetery Records (public cemeteries)
- Coroner’s Inquests
- Deeds and Mortgages
- Delayed Birth Records
- Homestead Records
- License to Carry Fire Arms (Tote a Gun)
- Licenses to operate a Business
- Lunacy Records (for public institutions)
- Maritime Records
- Marriage Licenses
- Military Discharge Records
- Motor Vehicle Registration Records
- Occupational Records, e.g. Druggists’ Licenses, etc.
- Prison Records
Civil registration of births, deaths, and marriages vary greatly from state to state. When statutes required such registration, the law will appear in the session laws or code.
For those of us with Quaker ancestry, we will want to determine if any state statutes were written regarding said marriages or ceremony. By way of example, within the statutes of the state of New Hampshire passed on 15 February 1791, we find “An ACT regulating marriages, and for the Registering of marriages, births and burials” which address Quaker marriages:
| ... And be it further enacted, That nothing in this act shall be construed to affect the right of the people called Quakers, to solemnize marriages in the way and manner usually practiced in their meetings; but all such marriages so solemnized shall be good and valid in law, any thing in this act to the contrary notwithstanding. |
Registers of Vital Records
You may find birth, delayed birth, marriage and death registers just about anywhere within a local courthouse. Many registers of vital records have been microfilmed and are available within the limitation of privacy issues. Many on microfilm are available through a FamilySearch Center or digitally through the FamilySearch website. For an example of a birth register, the Cook County, Illinois, birth registers from 1871-1915 are available for viewing on the FamilySearch website.
The registers which this author has viewed are frequently a treasure trove of information. A marriage register, for example, will generally provide far more data than the marriage certificate. By way of example, the La Salle County, Illinois, Marriage Register of 1877-1884 supplies the following information:
- Date of license
- Groom and Bride
- full name (maiden name of bride, if widowed)
- residence and occupation
- age at next birthday, race, and place of birth
- father’s name, mother’s maiden name
- number of this marriage
- Where and when married
- By whom certified, name and office
- Date of return and when registered.
Sample of the top left a LaSalle County, Illinois, Marriage Register
Sample of the top right a LaSalle County, Illinois, Marriage Register
Military Discharge Records
Bockstruck and Luebking noted in The Source (Chapter 11, “Military Records”), that “Each county in the United States was required to record the honorable discharge of soldiers and sailors who served in World War I and World War II. Some discharges for the Civil War and Philippine Insurrection are also on record, as well as some dishonorable and medical discharges.”
In order to be eligible for certain benefits and programs, the serviceman’s discharge papers are valuable to them. These records will be found in the local county courthouse, usually in the county that the serviceman returned to. They are particularly valuable for veterans of both World Wars―they serve as a substitute for some of the records lost during the fire at the National Personal Records Center in St. Louis on 12 July 1973 in which approximately 16-18 million records were destroyed.
Honorable discharge of John C. Darnell
As you can see on the honorable discharge shown, you might find a lot of information concerning the serviceman, such as:
- Name, rank and unit
- Birth place, occupation and a description
- Enlistment date and place, marital status and character
- Wounds received and much more.
You might need to check several courts in the county before locating the court of record. For instance, the Superior Court of Pickens County, Georgia, is the depository of copies of the military discharges of Pickens County veterans. Another example, The Dane County, Wisconsin, Register of Deeds, provides this service for their military veterans. (More information can be found on the Dane County website.)
- ↑ Benjamin Barnett Spratling, III, "Court and Legal Records" in Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records edited by Kory L. Meyerink (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, Inc., 1998), 439-443.
- ↑ Laws of New Hampshire, 1805, 296-298.
- ↑ Laws of New Hampshire, 1805, 298.
- ↑ LaSalle County, Illinois, Marriage Register, Book 1 (1877-1884): 161 (top left); Family History Library FHL film 1710811.
- ↑ LaSalle County, Illinois, Marriage Register, Book 1 (1877-1884): 161 (top right); Family History Library FHL film 1710811.
- ↑ Bockstruck, Lloyd deWitt and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. "Military Records." In The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. 3rd Edition. Provo, Utah: Ancestry, 2006.
- ↑ For additional information about the 1973 fire, visit National Archives and Records Administration, The 1973 Fire, National Personnel Records Center webpage: accessed 14 November 2013.
- ↑ Honorable Discharge of John C. Darnell, 1 August 1919, Pickens County, Georgia, Military Discharges, Superior Court, Jasper, Georgia.
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 21 April 2014, at 14:59.
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