Tennessee Court Records
If your ancestors were ever in court as defendants, plaintiffs, witnesses, or jurors, they may be in court records. They may have participated in cases of probate, naturalization, divorce, debt, adoption, guardianship, licenses, appointment to public office, taxes, civil and criminal lawsuits, property disputes, crimes, or any other matters brought before a court.
Court records can establish family relationships and places of residence. They often provide occupations, descriptions, and other family history information.
Tennessee courts having records of genealogical value are as follows:
1796–1809: Courts of Common Pleas and Quarter Sessions were county courts with jurisdiction in minor matters: taxes, budget, probate, and minor civil and criminal cases.
1796–1809: Superior Courts of Law and Equity covered specific regions of the state and handled larger civil and equity cases. They were the predecessors of the Circuit and Supreme Courts.
1809–1834: Court of Pleas had jurisdiction over minor matters.
1809–present: Circuit Courts are courts of law. They decide whether the parties involved in a case are guilty or innocent. They handle cases such as divorce, theft, murder, assault, gambling, and bastardy. After 1847 some Circuit Courts divided into: Criminal Courts for State cases, and Civil Courts for cases between individuals.
1809–present: Supreme Court hears appeals from lower courts. Until 1834 they limited their scope to law cases. After that date they receive appeals of all cases.
1822–1834: Chancery Division of Supreme Court handled larger equity cases.
1834–present: County Courts handle business matters only, no disputes. They deal with probate, proving wills, apprentice bonds, tax adjustments, providing for paupers and “idiots,” and road crew appointments.
1834–present: Chancery Courts handle any equity case, including estate, land, and claims against public officials. These courts handled slave ownership disputes.
Original court records are kept either in the county courthouse or in the State Archives. Some court records have been transcribed and published.
Tennessee Supreme Court Records
Many surviving Superior Court case files are at the Tennessee State Library and Archives and are accessible through a card file in the Manuscript Reading Room. Extracts of cases between 1791 and 1820 are in:
- Sherrill, Charles A. Tennesseans in Court: 2,500 Early Settlers found in Supreme Court Reports, 1791–1820. Mt. Juliet, Tennessee: Charles A. Sherrill, 1999. (Family History Library book 976.8 P2s;) Extracts contain names, places, the nature of the case being tried, and personal information included in the case. The volumes described by this book are at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.
- Bigelow, Melville M. Reports of Cases Argued and Adjudged in the Supreme Court of Errors and Appeals of Tennessee: 3, 4, and 5 Haywood in One Volume, with Notes and References. [1816-1819] New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1870. Digital version at Google Books.
- Humphreys, West H. Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of Tennessee, 1847-48. Nashville, Tennessee: W.F. Bang and Co., 1849. Vol 8 v. 27. Free digital copy.
Acts of Tennessee
Since its territorial days, the Tennessee state legislature has passed acts affecting the lives of individual citizens. The acts may such things as divorces, legitimizing children, compensation for government service,and road and ferry authorization. The Tennessee State Library and Archives has a online index to names found in the acts for the years 1796-1850. Copies of acts can be ordered from the Tennessee State Library and Archives.
- Public Acts of the State of Tennessee, 1848. Jackson : Printed by Gates and Parker, 1848.
- Public Acts of the State of Tennessee, 1858. Nashville : C. Torbett and Company, 1858.
- Public Acts of the State of Tennessee, 1882. Nashville : Albert B. Tavel, 1882.
- Public Acts of the State of Tennessee, 1861. Nashville : J.G. Griffith and Co, 1861
- Public Acts of the State of Tennessee, 1850. Nashville : McKennie and Watterson, 1850.
- Public Acts of the State of Tennessee, 1838 Nashville : S. Nye and Co, 1838.
- Public Acts of the State of Tennessee, 1846. Knoxville : James C. Moses, Register Office, 1846.
- Public Acts of the State of Tennessee, 1913. Nashville : McQuiddy Printing Company, 1913
- Public Acts of the State of Tennessee, 1911. Nashville : McQuiddy Printing Company, 1911
- Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Circuit and District Courts of the United States, for the Sixth Judicial Circuit . Chicago: Callaghan and Co., 1882. Free digital copy.
- The Sourcebook of County Court Records: A Concise, Straightforward, and Informative Reference Manual to the Main and Secondary Repositories of American County Court House Records. Denver, Colorado: BRB Publications, 1992. (Family History Library book 973 P2sou.) Pages 436–48 describe Tennessee. Each chapter begins with a summary of the state court system, state vital records, and the state criminal record repository.
- Caldwell, Joshua William. Sketches of the Bench and Bar of Tennessee. Knoxville, Tennessee: Ogden Brother and Co., 1898. Free digital copy. History of early Tennessee courts and the men who served there.
- Hicks, Wesley Jones. The Tennessee Manual of Chancery Pleading and Practice. Nashville, Tennessee: Marshall and Bruce, 1883. Free digital copy. Equity pleading and proceeding in late-1800 Tennessee courts.
- Rose, Christine. Courthouse Research for Family Historians: Your Guide to Genealogical Treasures. San Jose, California: CR Publications, 2004. This book guides researchers through the records and processes of courthouses in the United States.
See the United States Court Records article for more detailed information on court records. Refer to Tennessee Guardianship, Tennessee Probate Records, and Tennessee Naturalization and Citizenship for information about specific court records.
Court records are listed in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog under:
TENNESSEE - COURT RECORDS
TENNESSEE, [COUNTY] - COURT RECORDS