Germany: Using Court Records

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Beyond the Basics of Church Records: Using Court Records to Trace your German Roots


It may come as a surprise to some researchers that church books, at least originally, had little to do with family history. Some experts today have even come to think that parish registers simply recorded a pastor’s ministrations, which he performed in return for fees in cash or in kind. There is little evidence that records were set up with future use for genealogical, sociological or statistical research. (See Trüper, Hans G. Niederdeutsche Familienkunde 2/2005.) Understanding the original intent behind keeping church records helps to explain why the recording of vital events such as marriages, births and deaths can be sporadic, incomplete and full of riddles. To solve some of these puzzles, avoid hasty assumptions, and to fill in gaps and overcome dead ends, the conscientious family historian must often have recourse to other research materials.

Land records are a reliable alternative primary source. Next to important family events and the desire to have these recorded, people laid great emphasis on their possessions, particularly on who owned what land, what quantity was owned, who sold and who bought it, who held the mortgage to the property, who inherited, and so forth. Such negotiations and transactions are contained in court records. These are usually housed in an “Amtsgericht” (lower court), in the “Grundbuchabteilung” (Land Registry), in three separate sections according to subject matter. The early records have been transferred to an archive and are stored as they were originally created. To consult these records, one first needs to know their “Signatur” (call number), which can look something like this:

II. HA, Abt. 13 Neumark, Edikte und Patente. Nr. 12

In this particular instance, the information concerns a patent, assigned the number 12. It can be found in the area of Neumark under department (Abt. or Abteilung) 13 in the second section of the main archive (HA or Hauptarchiv). Once a “Signatur” is obtained, together with the knowledge of where in the archive the records are housed, a “Findbuch” (archival register or index) needs to be located through which detailed information about records will be provided.

The Court Records of Saxony as a case in point

Up until the year 1855, legal administrative districts in Saxony were called Ämter or Amtsbezirke; the legal administrators were called Amtshauptleute. Within these jurisdictions the lowest level of jurisprudence was practiced—to include the recording of transactions involving land. A law passed in August 1855 transferred the power from the traditional Amt to the newly formed Gerichtsamt. Administrative authority was placed in the hands of 14 Amtshauptmannschaften. In order to find the right court records one needs to be familiar with jurisdictions. Administrative changes throughout the years brought with them new geographical divisions. Practically speaking, one court may no longer be responsible for a certain area or may have obtained records from other courts. To determine the correct court for a given area it is advisable to consult gazetteers, for example Meyers Orts- und Verkehrslexikon for general information and area-specific gazetteers as the Historisches Ortsverzeichnis von Sachsen by Karlheinz Blaschke. This book contains historical developments in Saxony not found in Meyers Orts- und Verkehrslexikon. Maps showing historical developments are also valuable because they can help solve the question of where court records were kept and unravel seemingly complex problems of jurisdiction.

After one has determined the correct court of jurisdiction, a decision must be made on the type of record that is most likely to yield the desired information. The following is a typical scenario:

1841. Birth in Hainersdorf, Saxony. The father of the child was to be a future landowner at this point in time. A witness appeared who may be a possible relative. Could it be the grandfather? The father died in 1912 as a landowner. Between 1841 and 1912 the child’s father became a landowner. Did he purchase the land from his father?

To find out when and where this purchase took place, the following questions should be asked:

1.Which court had jurisdiction? (Meyers Orts- und Verkehrslexikon points to Sebnitz)

2.Which archive houses the records? (In 1841 Hainersdorf was administratively part of Amt Hohnstein; in 1856 it became part of Gerichtsamt Sebnitz. Records of both administrations are now housed in the Staatsarchiv Dresden. The “Beständeverzeichnis” (catalog) can be accessed online at

3.What would be the Signatur? From the above website choose Staatsarchiv Dresden, Archivbestände, Königreich und Freistaat Sachsen, Fachbehörden, Justiz, Gerichte, Gerichtsämter, Gerichtsamt Sebnitz. The “Signatur” would be 13482. If the records in question cannot be found here, choose from same website, same steps as before. Following Archivbestände: Markgrafschaft Meißen, Behörden und Einrichtungen der Erblande, Ältere Kreis- und Amtshauptmannschaften, Ämter, Amt Hohnstein 1606-1856. The “Signatur” is 10055.

4.How do I locate the Findbuch? One way would be to actually visit the archive. Ideally, the material should be preordered by indicating the appropriate “Signatur.” Some archives such as the Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz have the order forms online. These have to be filled out, and sent.

For the Kingdom of Saxony, the Genealogical Society of Utah was able to microfilm most of the court records. In the case of Sebnitz, the “Findbuch” is available on film in the International Section of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. In the Library’s catalog at under “place search,” one would enter “Sebnitz” and choose “court records.” International film 1889315 item 10 indicates the holdings of Sebnitz. One must then choose a time frame and match it up with film numbers from the FHL catalog where the “Findbuch” was found. The content of Kauf- und Handelsbuch lfd. Nr. 2 of the Amtsgericht Sebnitz, Hainersdorf turns out to be on International film number 2066577.

International Film number 2066577 deals among other things with “Erbkauf”, meaning the son, the son-in-law, or, in rarer cases, a total stranger might buy a farm, a house, a garden plot from a father, a father-in-law or from heirs. (By the way, women and minors are able to sell property only with representation through a guardian!)

For quicker retrieval of desired records, indexes are available, but not every film has one. An index may refer the researcher to a previous or subsequent film according to page numbers.

Caution: Older indexes list people by first names, rather than their surnames.

Land and goods sold in an “Erbkauf” are recorded over several pages. Personal information is given: The son buys from the father, the brother buys from his brother, the buyer is the son-in law, the mother and her children are selling the deceased husband’s/father’s property, etc. The various entries might enable one to construct how old people are and where they come from. The researcher will find out where the property in question is located and how large it is. (Note that most often we deal with numbers in “Ruthen” and “Hufen” (terms related to acreage). At the very least, we are able to retrieve information about the new owner, the seller, and the date and time of the transaction. The sale price is given in “Thaler” and “Groschen”. There will also be a listing of taxes, deliveries and annuities with which the property is encumbered. The buyer might make a down payment or a certain sum will be credited towards the purchase as a gift. Yearly payback installments will inform the researcher that people usually paid at “Michaelis” or “Walpurgis” (feast days).

Selling property to a son (the youngest, in German: “Jüngstenrecht”) served two purposes:

1.The owner insured that the property would not be split, but stay intact from generation to generation; 2.The owner made sure that he and his wife were properly cared for until death.

Hence, an “Erbkauf” lists all the property to be taken over by the son and all stipulations the father imposes on the new owner in order to maintain a sustainable existence, i.e., what food items are requested, quantities desired, and when these are to be provided. The seller might claim a certain part of the property as his dwelling quarters, might negotiate use of furniture and tools, what side of the garden he wants to cultivate and so on. Usually one can find in an “Erbkauf” negotiations about health care, and, in case of death the transfer of all agreements to the surviving spouse (whose name is mentioned). In summary, the information gleaned from an “Erbkauf” can be most helpful to the researcher in regards to relationships, localities and jurisdictions. Additionally, one gets a glimpse into the life style, culture, history, possessions, expectations and daily activities of the people working the land.

After the contracting parties have come to mutual agreements, the contract is signed in the presence of two or three witnesses. Here, we sometimes find the authentic signature of an ancestor, his three marks if he is not able to sign his name or we will see his “handheld” signature. The contract is then sent to the registrar, signed again by the two parties, and the deal becomes official.


For the family historian, the “Erbkauf” can be a treasure trove of information. With relatively little research, in some cases one can establish a list of owners of a farm (usually family members) from the middle of the 1800s back to the early 1600s.

Other cases have no easy answers. Especially when namesakes appear in the same village, or when people are called by their nicknames only, confusion can arise. If sales and inheritance contracts offer no further clues, the researcher may need to branch out and consider other records available through the legal system. Such records may be “Verzichte.” When a buyer finally paid off his installments, the seller gave him a release of claim, the so-called “Verzicht.” Since the property nearly always remained in the family, minors or unmarried children mentioned earlier may appear in such declarations. They now have married names and partners. In this way, additional genealogical information can be garnered.

A “Handelsbuch” may give the genealogist information about a farmer’s later marriages. When he remarried, the father had to portion off their mother’s part to his children of the previous marriage. Minors and females had to be represented through a guardian—who commonly turned out to be a relative. Sometimes a farmer had to declare bankruptcy. In such instances, the “Handelsbuch” will reveal to whom he owed money, a horse, a cow, etc. Or, the record lists further installments he was obliged to pay.

Ancestors may also have dealt with sales of “Gerade” (possessions of a woman) and “Heergeräte” (possessions of a man), to their children. Again, such alternative sources provide valuable insights into the daily lives of the people.