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<2017 July>

More Links

# Tuesday, 18 April 2017
Find Ancestors in Free Probate Records on AmericanAncestors!
Posted by Diane, the database website of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, is offering you free access to 32 of its probate records-related databases through next Tuesday, April 25.

You must register as a free guest member with in order to access the probate databases, which mostly come from New York and New England.

Click here to start searching.

Probate records, which relate to the distribution of a deceased person's estate, may include wills, estate inventories, guardianship papers and more. They often identify heirs and provide clues to family relationships—especially valuable in the time before birth and death records.

To help you decipher unfamiliar terms in your ancestor's probate records, here's our free Will & Probate glossary on

You can get help researching and understanding your ancestors' probate records in our on-demand video class Using Probate Records, available in

court records
Tuesday, 18 April 2017 15:13:29 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #  Comments [2]
# Tuesday, 17 May 2016
Little-Known Courthouse Records: My Ancestor's Mechanic's Lien
Posted by Diane

Genealogists researching old court records generally expect to find records like deeds, probate files and trial proceedings. In our Courthouse Research Made Easy Family Tree University course (running May 23-June 27), you'll learn about these and other, lesser-known, ancestor records you can find at the courthouse.

I was lucky to discover an interesting one by chance, and it told me a lot about a few days in the life of my third-great-grandfather Thomas Frost, a carpenter. Even luckier, the record was online.

The Hamilton County (Ohio) Genealogical Society has a downloadable PDF "sundries" index, kept for non-deed documents, from the county recorder's office. I casually scrolled through and spotted Thomas' name with "mechanic's lien."

My first stop was FamilySearch's collection of Hamilton County, Ohio, records. It's not yet indexed, so you can't search it. Instead, I browsed to Land and Property records, then to the book, volume and page number referenced in sundries index: Mechanic Liens Vol. 7 (1864-1869), page 50.

The document outlines the materials and labor Thomas provided to a Mr. S. Schwab on a two-story brick building at 177 West Third Street, October 26-28, 1864. The list included "Repairing front gutter and trimming same and making new cornice and turning and furnishing tin spouts to rear of house," "Time & Trouble Fixing Clossets" and "nine square and 20 ft. of Shingling at $2.00."

I had to look up what a mechanic's lien is. It serves as security for a person working on a construction project. The tradesperson receives interest in the property title, and if the person in charge of the project doesn't pay his workers, they can be paid from the sale of the property. Similar laws have existed for centuries, according to Wikipedia, but Thomas Jefferson conceived of mechanics liens in their modern form to encourage construction in Washington, DC.

Thomas was owed $391 and at the time he filed the lien Jan. 27, 1865, he'd received only $90. If I'm interpreting this correctly, it looks like he did receive payment.

You can bet I looked for an old map to find the location and see if the building still exists. It's a parking lot now.

But I know exactly where my ancestor was for three days in 1864, and what he was doing. Courthouses are filled with records like this, records you never would've realized existed. The four-week Courthouse Research Made Easy online course will show what records exist and how to find them, as well as offer strategies for in-person courthouse research. Learn more about the course and register at

court records | Family Tree University | Research Tips
Tuesday, 17 May 2016 14:39:17 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Friday, 04 September 2015
Finding Clues in's New Probate Collection
Posted by Diane

Yesterday I noted that the new will and probate collection on held a clue to the mysterious death of my third-great-grandmother Elizabeth (Teipel) Thoss. Elizabeth disappeared sometime between her son Henry’s birth in 1894 and the 1900 census, but I couldn’t find a death or burial record.

The very first will I looked for was that of Elizabeth’s mother, Gertrude Meiners, who died in 1919. Awhile ago I found the index entry in a digitized index volume on, but that site didn’t have the book with the will.

Sure enough, Gertrude named Elizabeth in her will, dated April 24, 1910 (her husband had died the previous year):

Gertrude, who was about 80 when she penned her will, left $5 to each of the five children of her “deceased daughter Elizabeth Thors.” She also declared null and void a note Elizabeth’s deceased husband “Edward E. Thors” (who died in 1908) executed to Gertrude on Aug. 14, 1895.

Finally, Gertrude forgave the balance of $100, “due me for the funeral bill of their deceased mother, which I advanced to their deceased father.”

This is the first reference I’ve found to Elizabeth’s death in any record, but the date and circumstances are still a mystery. I haven’t found any more information even by browsing death record collections and newspapers around that date. The rest of the probate packet (which isn't on may shed more light on things, as might the probate records of Elizabeth's husband.

Wills and probate records are full of names, relationships and other information. Relatively few are searchable online, but it’s worth a microfilm search or courthouse visit. Our Make the Most of Probate Records online course from Family Tree University can help you understand the records generated by the probate process and how to find them.

Gertrude’s will also confirmed the names of her other children (including the married daughters) and grandchildren, indicated whether they were living, and gave the name of her church and the address where she lived when she wrote the will.

It does have a couple of details out of sync with my tree: Elizabeth’s married name was Thoss, not Thors, and her husband’s name was Louis E., not Edward E. | court records | Research Tips
Friday, 04 September 2015 11:33:21 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Monday, 27 July 2015
"WDYTYA?" Summer 2015 Premiere: Ginnifer Goodwin's Mysterious Great-Grandparents
Posted by Diane

For the summer 2015 season of TLC's “Who Do You Think You Are?Family Tree Magazine contributor Shannon Combs Bennett will be watching and reporting on each episode. Here's Shannon's post on yesterday's premiere episode:

The summer 2015 season premiere of "Who Do You Think You Are?" started with the mysterious family history of actor Ginnifer Goodwin, whom you may have seen on ABC's "Once Upon a Time."

Goodwin wanted to learn more about her paternal grandfather, John, who was abandoned at age 11 in Arkansas and rarely spoke of his parents. Little did she know it would take her (and us, in this intense "WDYTYA?" episode) on a tour of old prison records and the aftermath of prescription morphine addiction.

After picking her father's brain for family history details, Goodwin travels to Arkansas, where she sees John's SS-5 document—the application to participate in the Social Security program—which provides the maiden name of his mother, Nellie. This form can be a treasure trove for genealogists researching ancestors alive after the program began in 1935.

Learn more about requesting your ancestor's SS-5 on the Social Security Administration website and from our guide Document Detective: Social Security Application Form (available in

The maiden name helps Goodwin trace Nellie through moves and marriages. Court documents and prison records reveal that her second ex-husband, Al Goodwin, was sent to federal prison for bootlegging (Prohibition had not yet taken effect, but he was prosecuted for failing to pay federal taxes on the income). The records were remarkable not only because they included the first image Goodwin had ever seen of her great-grandfather, but also a letter Nellie wrote to the Warden asking about another woman who'd been visiting Al. This episode shows viewers the wealth of genealogical information available through the court system.

Nellie, like a surprising number of women in the South during the early 20th century, became addicted to medically prescribed morphine. The drug was prescribed to her, probably for syphilis (which was relatively common, and which her husband's prison records revealed he also had).

According to the records of a Louisiana morphine clinic where she sought help in 1922, she'd been addicted for 11 years. (Find out more about the clinic from this book.) This part of the story, while sad to hear, shed light on the morphine addiction crisis of that time.

If you also have ancestors who could be in the court system, make sure you check out one of these resources from our store:

"Who Do You Think You Are?" | Celebrity Roots | court records
Monday, 27 July 2015 12:41:49 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #  Comments [2]
# Wednesday, 17 June 2015
Beginner Genealogy Tips: Where to Look for Great Ancestor Stories
Posted by Diane

One of my favorite aspects of genealogy is finding a good story. Maybe an ancestor took part in an historical event, clawed his way to economic success, survived an arduous migration or even committed a crime. The kinds of things you might see on an episode of "Who Do You Think You Are?"

If you're getting started in genealogy, you might think there's no excitement in your family tree—but there probably is if you look for it. These are some of the best family story sources (and I'll tell you where they've led me to juicy family history details):
  • Newspapers: Probably like many of you, I never thought my family was particularly newsworthy. But I've found news items including a brief mention of a small kitchen fire in my third-great-grandfather's home, reports on my Federal League baseball player relative's performance on the field, a very complimentary profile of my grandfather after his graduation from an orphanage, and a sordid tale of another third-great-grandfather's stabbing during a fight over a woman (one day I'll blog about that guy).

    Digitized newspaper sites include the free Chronicling America and subscription-based GenealogyBank and Visit your library or state archive to scroll local papers on microfilm.
  • Military pension applications: I haven't yet had the pleasure of paging through a family member's military pension papers, but in our "What's in a Civil War Pension File?" video class, military records expert Diana Crisman Smith explains how you could find correspondence about military service, documentation of marriage, written testimony about wounds received, photos and more.

    Subscription site and have indexes and some record images for Revolutionary War, War of 1812,
    Mexican War and Civil War pensions. Some of the record images are on's sister site Fold3, which requires an additional subscription (your library or local FamilySearch Center may offer free use of and Fold3).

  • Family papers: Diaries, letters, postcards, scrapbooks, photos, baby books and other passed-down items from trunks, closets and attics hold "everyday life" details and stories you won't find anywhere else. Go through your house (and your relatives' houses, if they'll let you) for these home sources and examine them for clues. Once your relatives start to see you as "the family historian," these types of items—which many people don't necessarily want to store, but don't want to throw out either—may very well come knocking on your door. Advice for digitally archiving and preserving these sources is in the book How To Archive Family Keepsakes by Denise Levenick. 
  • Histories: I've found profiles of relatives (including yet another third great-grandfather) and a story about a tornado hitting a relative's farm (a journalist was having dinner with the family when it happened). These secondary sources may contain errors because they're usually based on recollections and were edited for print, but they're full of research clues. Local and county histories are often digitized on Google Books (here's a step-by-step Google Books tutorial you can download from and start using right away), Internet Archive,, (some FamilySearch digitized books are accessible only from a FamilySearch Center) or your library's website. Find print versions through WorldCat and in local libraries. 
  • Censuses: Your basic census records offer clues such as school attendance (1850-on), the value of his property or home (1850-1870 and 1940), whether the household included slaves (1790-1860); how many children a woman had and how many were still living (1900 and 1910); and whether any household members had visual, hearing or other impairments (1840-1910). Don't overlook these columns, which may prompt you to dig for the story behind the number. Free sites with census records include (some search results link to record images on subscription sites) and; and also have census records and images.
    Some federal censuses also were accompanied by special schedules for certain populations, such as "Defective, Dependent and Delinquent" classes (1880) and owners of industry/manufacturing businesses (1810-1820, few of which survive, and 1850-1880). Many of these records are on | census records | court records | FamilySearch | Libraries and Archives | Military records | MyHeritage | Newspapers | Research Tips | saving and sharing family history
Wednesday, 17 June 2015 11:06:43 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #  Comments [2]
# Wednesday, 03 June 2015
What Genealogy Records Might You Find in a Courthouse?
Posted by Diane

If you're trying to figure out a genealogy problem or trace an elusive ancestor, the answer might be in court records. Court records are so varied, and organized in different ways in different places, and usually unindexed, that they can be hard to find and use.

Our Courthouse Research Premium collection has the guidance you need to find these and other types of courthouse records:
  • Early vital records: Counties often stored birth and death registers at the courthouse before states took over vital record-keeping.
  • Probate records: Wills, estate inventories, settlement papers, guardianship appointments and more
  • Deeds: contracts transferring ownership of land and sometimes property (including enslaved humans)
  • Tax lists: registers of those who payed property, poll and other taxes
  • Naturalization records: before 1906, immigrants could file for naturalization with any court—local, state or federal
  • Case files: testimony, evidence, subpoenas and other records relevant to civil or criminal court cases
  • Dockets: schedule of the court's hearings 
  • Minutes: a brief record of the actions for the court for each day
  • Manumissions: documents freeling slaves
  • Orders: record of cases heard and judgments to be carried out
  • Military discharge records: many returning servicemembers would file their discharge records with the county courthouse, a potential substitute if your ancestor's service records were destroyed in the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center
  • Licenses: such as for businesses, medical practitioners or dog owners
Sometimes you can find these records digitized (though rarely searchable) on courthouse websites or FamilySearch has microfilmed court records for many counties (run a place search of the catalog here); you can rent the microfilm for viewing at your local FamilySearch Center. You may need to send a request or visit the courthouse, which—if you're allowed to search the records yourself—can lead to unexpected finds hidden away in files and bound volumes.

The Courthouse Research Premium collection includes on-demand webinars, the Family Tree Sourcebook e-book and other downloads to help you find use genealogy records from the courthouse. It includes advice you'll need for visiting and navigating your ancestral county courthouse, which can be a somewhat initimidating proposition (as I learned a couple of years ago). Take a look at what's in the Courthouse Research Premium collection today in

court records | Research Tips | Sales
Wednesday, 03 June 2015 14:34:59 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #  Comments [3]
# Monday, 23 March 2015
"Who Do You Think You Are?" Angie Harmon Traces American Revolution Roots
Posted by Diane

Follow along as "Who Do You Think You Are?" correspondent Sunny Jane Morton recaps last night's episode, featuring actor Angie Harmon's hunt for her Revolutionary roots.

Last night’s "Who Do You Think You Are?" is the first show this season to stay in the United States. But I didn’t miss the exotic eye-candy of foreign vistas. I loved the quintessentially American tale that led into a little-known and surprising episode in US military history.
Celebrity guest Angie Harmon explored the story of her fifth-great grandfather, German immigrant Michael Harmon. She was surprised to learn how he got to come to America in 1772: as an indentured servant whose labor was sold to the highest bidder to pay off his passage. He finished out his term of service as an enlisted man in the 4th Pennsylvania regiment. Along with thousands of fellow troops, he suffered through winter quarters at Valley Forge under Gen. George Washington’s command.
The actor was feeling pretty proud of her ancestor until she learned that his regiment mutinied a few years later. Fortunately she looked for a little more historical context before she judged her ancestor too harshly. The troops had lived for months on few provisions and little of the pay that was owed them and. “Every man has his breaking point,” she decided. They weren’t disloyal, just fed up, a conclusion that seemed supported by the regiment’s rejection of a British offer to buy their loyalty.
Several great record examples appeared as we learned more about Michael Harmon: indenture records, regimental histories, a military pay slip, tax records and a will. Examining the will, Angie Harmon becomes noticeably excited as she finds the name of Michael’s wife and seven children. An entire family reconstructed in a single document: genealogical paydirt.
Wills are usually available in probate court (also called chancery court or orphans court) records for the county where the will was filed. FamilySearch has many counties’ probate records on microfilm; try searching the online catalog for the name of the county and then looking for a probate heading. If the film is digitized on, the catalog will link you to that film. If it’s not on microfilm or digitized, you can write to the courthouse (if you know the date the will was filed or have a file number, information that might available in an index published by the local genealogical society) or visit in person. has some tips here for finding your ancestors' wills.
Angie Harmon brings along her three young daughters on a visit to the ancestral farm in the rolling green hills of Kentucky. The last reveal is the current owner: a cousin, Michael Harmon, 220 years after the first Michael Harmon:

If you’ve got deep US roots, some of the record sets that proved helpful to Harmon’s research could help yours, too. Enlist the aid of military records with our US Military Records independent study course. You’ll learn about different kinds of records created over time, including service, pension, bounty land and draft records. Then get up to speed on tax records, estate files and other county-level records in our Courthouse Research Crash Course OnDemand Webinar.

Next week's "Who Do You Think You Are?" features actor Sean Hayes and his Irish family history. Tune in Sunday, March 29 at 10/9 Central.

"Who Do You Think You Are?" | Celebrity Roots | court records | Military records
Monday, 23 March 2015 08:08:42 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [1]
# Wednesday, 12 November 2014
Genealogy Research at the Courthouse: When Your Ancestor's Old Record is Missing
Posted by Diane

So you send a request for your ancestor's divorce or deed or criminal trial or other old record to the courthouse that should have it—or you go to that courthouse—and the record isn't there.

This happened to me when I requested case records of my great-grandfather's 1913 trial for bootlegging in Bowie, Texas, a dry county at the time. I didn't have a volume and page number, but I knew details including the county and the date of conviction. I laid it all out as succinctly as possible in my request, added that I'd pay any fees, and sent it off to the clerk (whose name and address I found on the county court's website).

A few weeks later, my letter came back with a note that said "searched, record not found." When this happens, it's possible the information in the request was incorrect or incomplete, that the record was misfiled or filed elsewhere, or that it no longer exists.

In addition to explaining what types of court records exist and helping you find your ancestor's court records, our Nov. 20 Courthouse Research Crash Course webinar will address what to do when records are missing. Here are some of the options I've tried:
  • Double-check your information: Were the names in your request spelled correctly? Did you give a woman's maiden name when the record should be under her married name? Did you transpose numbers in the date? If so, correct your request and resubmit it.
  • Find the volume and page number where the record is located: Some local genealogical societies have published indexes to court records. Otherwise, check the FamilySearch online catalog for microfilmed indexes: Run a Place search on the county or town and click the court records heading, then browse for index reels covering the right time period. Rent the film to view at your local FamilySearch Center (or, if the records are digitized online, you'll see a link to the collection at

    Court records indexes are usually handwritten and arranged by the first letter of the last name. Within each section, names may be partially or not at all alphabetized, so check the entire section.

  • Check the microfilmed records: Once you have a volume and page number, you could add it to your request, or you could see whether FamilySearch has microfilmed or digitized the records you need.

    At the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, I searched the microfilmed index and court records for Bowie County. I could see why the clerk didn't find the records: The volume and page number the index gave for my great-grandfather's case corresponded with records from years before he was in the county. I also checked microfilmed records for the time his trial took place. Nothing. I noted from the index that his trial was one of a batch of consecutively numbered bootlegging cases, all of which seemed to be missing.

  • Look for courthouse disasters: Local research guides and genealogical societies also can tell you if a fire or other disaster destroyed records. If so, find out exactly which records were involved—some may have survived. Also look for reconstructed records and other substitute sources. (Find our guide to researching around record disasters in

  • Check local research guides: It's possible the records were misplaced or filed elsewhere. After all, we're talking about an entire county's worth of paperwork in a pre-computer era. Some time after my microfilm search, I found newspaper articles mentioning my ancestor's trial, and how a special court district was set up to handle the glut of bootlegging cases. I wonder if those records were kept elsewhere? Local research guides and societies might help in figuring out the answer.

    I could resubmit a more-detailed request, in the hopes a different clerk would know where to look. One thing to remember, though, is that a clerk won't be as highly invested in my genealogy search as I am, and regular duties would likely take precedence over my request.

    I would love to go to the courthouse to search the records myself (or I could hire someone if I had the budget for it). Not all courthouses let researchers access the original records, so if it's an option you're considering, call first.

Our Courthouse Research Crash Course webinar, presented by Family Tree Magazine contributing editor Sunny Jane Morton, is Thursday, Nov. 20, at 7 p.m. ET. Everyone who registers will receive a PDF of the presentation slides, as well as access to view the webinar again as often as desired.

See what you'll learn in the Courthouse Research Crash Course webinar and get registered at

court records | Webinars
Wednesday, 12 November 2014 13:01:55 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [1]
# Wednesday, 29 October 2014
33 Types of Old County Court Records to Search for Your Ancestors
Posted by Diane

County courthouses are full of obscure and informative old records about long-ago residents of an area, and sometimes it takes a lot of digging to find them.

Family Tree University's upcoming Court Records 101 course can help you dig in the right places to find the genealogy records you need. Depending on the time and place your ancestor lived, you might find these types of records at his or her county courthouse:
  • adoption records
  • bastardy cases
  • civil records
  • coroners’ files
  • criminal case files
  • custody papers
  • deeds
  • divorce case files
  • estate inventories
  • guardianship papers
  • indenture contracts
  • insanity/commitment orders
  • jury lists
  • justice of the peace records
  • licenses
  • livestock brands and marks
  • manumissions
  • marriage bonds, licenses and certificates
  • military discharges
  • minute books
  • mortgages and leases
  • name changes
  • naturalizations
  • oaths of allegiance
  • permits
  • prenuptial agreements
  • probate files
  • property foreclosures
  • registers of births or deaths
  • tax records
  • voter registrations
  • wills
  • wolf-scalp bounties 
If you can't go to the courthouse yourself to look for these, you could send a written request if you have the volume and page number of the record you need. If not, FamilySearch may have the record on microfilm (find instructions for borrowing Family History Library microfilm here) or if you're lucky, digitized online.

To find digitized court records for your ancestral county or town on, go to the page listing all Historical Record Collections (you also can get here by clicking the Browse All Published Collections link on the record Search page). Use the filters on the left to choose United States, then the state.

Look for the name of the county or town in the collection titles, such as " Ohio, Jefferson County Court Records, 1797-1947" or" Ohio, Hamilton County Records, 1791-1994" ("court" doesn't necessarily appear in the name). Many of these collections aren't yet indexed, so you'll need to browse through the records rather than search by name. 

Remember that just because it isn't on microfilm or digitized online, doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Often the most-used records are filmed or digitized, while more-obscure records aren't.

In some states, old county records are sent to the state archives. A visit to the court's website or a call before you visit should tell you if this is the case. (My call ahead to a county courthouse saved me a trip when I was looking for my third-great-grandparents' divorce records.)

Family Tree University's Court Records 101 course gives you in-depth, expert guidance for finding and researching in old court records about your ancestors. The next session starts Monday, November 3—see a syllabus and get registered here.

court records | Family Tree University | FamilySearch | Research Tips
Wednesday, 29 October 2014 14:13:27 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Monday, 28 April 2014
Finding My Great-Great-Grandfather's 1879 Deed Record
Posted by Diane

Don't tell anyone, but I almost did Dora the Explorer's "We Did It!" dance at work the other day. You might know it if you have small children or grandchildren.

You might even have done this dance if you're a genealogist who finally found the old property record you've been looking for.

I will explain. My genealogy research day last December included a trip to the Cincinnati History Library & Archives to find my great-great-grandfather's H.A. Seeger's deed for this property in its microfilmed deed books.

From searching city directories, I knew my ancestor began living at 112 Abigail St. (the address has changed over the years) about 1880. The librarian showed me the microfilmed deed book indexes and explained they don't cover all the records, so if I didn't find what I need, I should ask about finding the deed by location.

I checked indexes for several years before and after 1880. This took awhile due to the handwriting and the number of S-surnames (loosely alphabetized by first name). H.A. Seeger wasn't there.

Another librarian helped me with the location search. Or more correctly, I looked on and nodded and tried to answer his questions as best I could. We used a map to find the subdivision name and the lot number, and scrolled through a microfilm index for this subdivision. H.A. Seeger's name was listed with book 421 and page 623. He's fourth from the bottom in this fuzzy photo of the screen, which came in handy later:

My librarian friend handed me the microfilm covering that book and wished me luck. Only the record in that book on that page wasn't H.A. Seeger's. I didn't even recognize the names. I checked adjoining pages, I checked deed numbers instead of page numbers, I  checked book 412 and on page 632 in case some indexer transposed the numbers. Then I ran out of time.

FamilySearchorg recently updated its Hamilton County, Ohio, collection with land and property records. They aren't indexed yet, but I thought I'd see what I could find.

I checked my snapshot of the index, and I didn't find deed book 421 in FamilySearch's collection. I was about to close the site when I scrolled down to see the other records—and I came across a mortgage book numbered 421. I clicked, typed 623 in the image number field, flipped another page (image numbers are usually a little off from page numbers because of the cover and other front matter), and there was H.A. Seeger's record.

(If you're researching in Hamilton County, this genealogical society web page and the PDFs it links to are extremely helpful in understanding the confusing numbering of property record books. There are both a deed and a mortgage book numbered 421.)

He purchased the property May 27, 1879, from Joseph and Agnes Otten with a loan of $200 from the Woodward Bau und Leih Verein (Building and Loan Association). The record describes the location of the property, the building, and the terms of H.A. Seeger's repayment. A note on Dec. 3, 1889, says he paid it off. It gives the book and page numbers recording the plat and recording Joseph Otten's purchase in 1864, adding two items to my genealogy to-do list.

Want to do find your ancestor's land records and do a "We Did It!" genealogy dance of your own? Get in-depth help from our online course Land Records 101: Using Deeds, Plats, Patents & More, with Diana Crisman Smith. It starts May 5 and runs four weeks. See a course outline and register at

court records | Family Tree University | Research Tips
Monday, 28 April 2014 12:23:03 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #  Comments [1]
# Wednesday, 09 April 2014
Cigars and Sewing Machines: Finding My Ancestor's Estate Inventory in Old Court records
Posted by Diane

So this was exciting: I found the estate inventory for my great-great-grandfather H.A. Seeger, who died Aug. 18, 1923, in Hamilton County, Ohio, court records digitized on

This collection isn't yet indexed and can't be searched, so I've been browsing. I'm still trying to figure out how the records are organized, which according to our upcoming Mastering Genealogy Research in Court Records online course, can vary by county and time period.

Many of the volumes have indexes in the front (usually grouped by first letter of the last name, and then sometimes by first letter of the first name). In slowly clicking through volumes around dates of family marriages, deaths and other events, I found H.A. named in the index of an inventory record volume for 1923. I went to the page number listed. 

The estate inventory separates the contents of H.A.'s cigar store, which one of his sons took over, from the household goods in the residence above the store.

He owned $230 in store inventory and equipment, including "2 doz. Lucky Strike," "14. pkg. Old Va. cheroots," "lot miscellaneous stogies" and $15 in penny candies.

In the house was a chiffonier (I had to look this up—it's a high chest of drawers, which may be the one now in my uncle's house), a sewing machine (probably belonging to H.A.'s wife, who died in 1916, or one of their daughters) and other goods, totaling $54.25 in value.

The inventory also listed bank accounts worth $110.58 and $210.70 (about $4,411.14 in today's money, according to the CPI inflation calculator).

The inventory was notarized Oct. 1, 1923, and filed the next day. Now I'm looking for a will and other probate documents, and I'll use the information in the four-week Mastering Genealogy Research in Courthouse Records online course to help speed up my search. The course isn't just about finding records online, but also what you can find at the courthouse in nondigitized records. It's great for starting your foray into these richly detailed, but often intimidating, genealogical records.

For expert advice on using the free collections at—including the unindexed, not-searchable ones—check out our webinar 10 Simple Strategies for Using, happening Wednesday, April 16.

court records | Family Tree University | FamilySearch | Research Tips
Wednesday, 09 April 2014 14:14:35 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Thursday, 16 January 2014
Genealogists Mourn Incinerated Records in Franklin County, NC
Posted by Diane

When genealogists talk about "burned records," we usually mean a courthouse fire that happened accidentally or during a Civil War battle.

But the term has taken on a new meaning in Franklin County, NC, where thousands of historical records, long-forgotten in the courthouse basement, were systematically incinerated last month. As word gets out, genealogists and historians across the country are expressing their shock on social media (see links to bloggers' reports below).

Here's the short version of what happened:

Last May, a new county clerk discovered the records in a state of disarray in the basement, along with assorted trash, mold and water damage. The local heritage society formed a plan to inventory and preserve the records, lined up volunteers, and secured the necessary funds and space. Members had started the work when they were ordered to stop and wait for further instruction. At some point officials from the state archives and various county departments were allowed to remove an unknown number of records.

On Friday, Dec. 6, after the end of the workday and without notice to anyone, a crew in hazmat suits cleared out the basement and burned the records in the local animal shelter's incinerator.

Explanations from local officials have mentioned hazardous mold, privacy concerns, official record retention schedules, and possibly others I've missed in reading articles and blog posts. The county manager, who authorized the incineration, has promised a written explanation.

What was lost? No one was able to do a complete inventory of the records, but examples of the basement's contents include an 1890s naturalization document, 1890s chattel mortgages, post-Civil War to Prohibition-era court dockets, and a letter from a WWI soldier serving abroad asking the court to make sure his sister and his estate were looked after.

Several bloggers are following these events and the backlash in detailed posts:
She's also posting about media coverage and public response.
  • Renate at Into the Light is a member of the Franklin County Heritage Society who witnessed the records being carried out of the courthouse basement to be incinerated. Read her story and see photos.

court records | Genealogy societies | Historic preservation | Public Records
Thursday, 16 January 2014 09:48:34 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [3]
# Wednesday, 16 October 2013
Genealogy Clues Your Ancestor Was a Black Sheep
Posted by Diane

One of the folks on this week's "Genealogy Roadshow"—the last one of the season, filmed in Austin, Texas—had a Civil War ancestor who, perhaps suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, shot and killed his wife years after the war. A very sad story.

Such family tree discoveries can be unsettling, even when family rumors hint that something bad happened (as they did for this Genealogy Roadshow guest). On the other hand, genealogists often relish having ancestors who committed less heinous crimes—maybe horse thievery or bootlegging—because that means records to discover.

"Black sheep" are more common than you might think: Investigating our family stories of my great-grandfather's time in prison for bootlegging led me to the unexpected discovery that his wife had filed for divorce and claimed cruel treatment (the case was dismissed).

On the other side of the family, I was completely surprised to discover that my third-great-grandparents were divorced in a sensational case, and a few years later, my third-great-grandfather was stabbed in a knife fight over a woman he'd become obsessed with (I still need to blog about this). 

Here are a few clues that you may have a black sheep ancestor on your hands:
  • Family stories. They aren't always true, as we've seen on "Genealogy Roadshow," but there's often a grain of truth behind the stories.

  • An unexplained disappearance from the family. It could indicate an unrecorded death or migration for work, or it could mean the person deserted the family.

  • Your ancestor is listed in prison on a census. You'll usually see the institution listed at the top of the form, and he may be listed as an "inmate" or a "prisoner." (Not all inmates were in prisons, though: In 1920, my bootlegger's son was an "inmate" in an orphanage. It was just a term for someone who lived in an institution.)

    If you know or suspect your ancestor was imprisoned, you can find some records or indexes online. For federal institutions, check the National Archives' Online Public Access search. For state prisons, check the state archives' website. Also look for prison records you can borrow on microfilm through interlibrary loan.

  • You find newspaper articles about a divorce filing, desertion (wives would sometimes post newspaper ads for missing husbands), arrest, or a court action. I've been unable to find the court records for my great-grandfather's bootlegging trial, so newspaper mentions of it are all I have (so far).

  • You find court records. When I was checking a court index in search of the bootlegging case, I came across an entry showing my great-grandparents as plaintiff and defendant: their divorce case.
Our Research Strategies: Criminal Records download helps you track down court, prison and other records of ancestors who strayed to the wrong side of the law.

The Using Criminal Court Records on-demand webinar with Judy G. Russell delves even deeper into the trial process, what court records it might have generated about your ancestor, and how to find those records.

Watch this week's "Genealogy Roadshow" online here.

court records | Genealogy TV | Newspapers
Wednesday, 16 October 2013 12:58:21 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #  Comments [2]
# Thursday, 26 September 2013
Unpuzzling Your Ancestors' County Boundary Changes
Posted by Diane

Figuring out your US ancestors' county boundaries can be like doing a puzzle with pieces that keep changing size and shape.

If one of your ancestral families settled early in what's now Morrow county in central Ohio, for example, they conceivably could've resided in—count 'em up—seven different counties without moving an inch: 
  • Morrow County was formed March 1, 1848, from Crawford, Knox, Marion, Delaware and Richland counties. (A small area went back to Richland County the next year.)

  • Marion County, formed April 1, 1820, from a "non-county" area that was attached to Delaware County (it remained attached to Delaware County for administrative purposes until 1924)

  • Delaware County, formed April 1, 1808, from part of Franklin County

  • Franklin County, formed April 30, 1803, from Ross and a non-county area; it overlapped Wayne county

  • Ross County, formed Aug. 20, 1798, from Adams, Hamilton and Washington counties

  • Adams County, formed July 10, 1797, from Hamilton and Washington counties

  • Hamilton County is one of Ohio's original counties, formed Jan. 2, 1790, from the Northwest Territory. It expanded in 1792 with more Northwest Territory and Washington County land.

That's seven different counties that could hold your family's genealogy records. And this isn't even the most convoluted example of how counties would annex land, get carved up, change their borders and switch county seats.

Our Unpuzzling County Boundary Changes webinar will show you how to figure out where your ancestor's records should be during what time periods, using tools such as the Newberry Library's Atlas of Historical County Boundaries, gazetteers, the Map Guide to the US Federal Censuses, 1790-1820, and more.

The Unpuzzling County Boundary Changes webinar takes place Thursday, Oct. 17, at 7 p.m. ET (6 CT, 5 MT, and 4 PT). Everyone who registers will receive a PDF of the presentation slides and access to view the webinar again as often as you want.

And if you register before  Oct. 10, you'll save $10. Learn more about the Unpuzzling County Boundary Changes webinar here.

court records | Research Tips | Webinars
Thursday, 26 September 2013 10:13:54 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Wednesday, 31 July 2013
"Who Do You Think You Are?": Tips to Find the Genealogy Records Christina Applegate Used
Posted by Diane

Last's night's "Who Do You Think You Are?" with Christina Applegate is a good example of how much you can learn even if you start with very little information. All she had to begin her search for her paternal grandmother was her father Robert's birth certificate and his mother's name.

Robert thought he remembered a few other details, such as when his mother died, but those vague memories turned out to be wrong. At one point he even said "I thought I was older."

Yes, I teared up at the end of the show when Robert appeared devastated to learn of the violence in his parents' marriage and his mother's death caused by tuberculosis and alcoholism. And then when Christina comforted him by pointing out how he's had a positive life despite having every reason not to. And again when he left flowers at his mother's grave, knowing she had wanted him buried by her side.

Genealogy can be healing.

Documents consulted in the episode include: 
  • Birth, marriage and death certificates. Almost all states had mandated keeping these by the early-to-mid-20th century. (A few leave marriage records to counties.) They're generally available from state vital records offices, but often access is limited to immediate family for privacy reasons. Download our free chart of statewide vital record-keeping dates from here.
I liked how the archivists helped Applegate examine documents for clues beyond just names and ages. In the 1940 census, for example, they looked at the years of schooling for each household member as well as the months out of work. They put those details into the context of the lingering Great Depression and what that meant for the family.

If you missed the episode, keep an eye on the "Who Do You Think You Are?" website for a link to watch it online.

To find Family Tree Magazine guides and video classes for doing genealogy research in vital records, the census, newspapers and other records, visit You can use the search box at the top of the site or browse the Genealogy Records category.

"Who Do You Think You Are?" | Celebrity Roots | census records | court records | Newspapers | Research Tips | Vital Records
Wednesday, 31 July 2013 10:15:01 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #  Comments [1]
# Thursday, 04 April 2013
10 Tips for Researching Genealogy in Court Records
Posted by Diane

I'm pretty excited about our new Mastering Genealogy Research in Court Records course from Family Tree University. I've found this to be one of the most intimidating areas of genealogy research, but also one of the most rewarding—my court records finds have included an ancestral divorce filing in Texas and a revealing divorce case in Kentucky.

Mastering Genealogy Research in Court Records instructor Sunny Jane Morton shared these tips for a productive visit to the courthouse (and why you might not need to make a special trip to the courthouse, after all). The first session of this class starts April 8, and if you want to register, you can use code FTU0413 to save 20%.
  •  If you're traveling to a courthouse or another repository to research county-level records, download and fill out a Research Repository Checklist. It'll help you plan your visit, bring appropriate materials and leave extra stuff behind. Bring this checklist with you to the courthouse, along with a County Research Resources worksheet (available to course participants) listing which office has which types of records and what records you’re looking for.

  • Arrive as early as possible in the workday. You never know how much time your research will take.

  • Dress professionally but in comfortable, washable clothes. You may be on your feet a lot of the day in tight, hard-to-reach or dusty spaces. Yet, you'll get the respect you deserve as a researcher when you look presentable.

  •  Carry a minimum of materials with you. There probably won't be a secure place to set up a laptop computer or table space where you can spread out your notes.

  • Confirm copying policies ahead of time. You may be permitted to use a wand scanner or the digital camera on your phone, or you may have to buy a copy card. Some places permit only taking notes.

  • When you need to ask the staff a question, think of the most direct way to ask. Don’t share your family history. Say, “Where would I look for an index to probates or intestate proceedings for 1912?”, not “My great-grandfather died in 1912 in Chester Township and I think my great-grandmother was the executor of the estate….”

  • Be observant. In addition to the records you came for, keep an eye out for clues to other court records about your family.

  • Be thorough. If you don’t find what you expect to, ask a clerk a specific question. “Where else other than deed books might I find someone disposing of land between 1843 and 1846?” You might be shown a separate book of sheriff’s sales if your ancestor fell behind on taxes.

  •  If you can’t find what you’re looking for, ask politely whether someone in the county offices has a lot of experience with the historical records. If that person is available, he or she may be able to tell you whether an ancestor could have married by banns, or how likely it was that African-Americans would've had their deaths reported or estates filed during the Jim Crow years.

  • Finally, not every court record requires a trip to the courthouse. You might discover that records you need are microfilmed or digitized at the state archives or In some cases, a combination of online research, microfilm rental and requesting copies from the courthouse will suffice.

court records | Family Tree University | Research Tips
Thursday, 04 April 2013 09:25:57 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [2]
# Tuesday, 05 February 2013
Tabloid Divorces Have Nothing on These Ancestors
Posted by Diane

Last week I promised to tell you how I got my third-great-grandparents’ divorce record. 

It went on my genealogy to-do list after a random search of historical newspaper website GenealogyBank resulted in newspaper notices when my third-great-grandmother filed for divorce in 1879 (below), and again when the divorce was granted two years later.

You know when you think something is going to be a big ordeal so you procrastinate, then when you finally get the ball rolling it turns out to be a piece of cake and you wish you did it ages ago?

I had checked, and USGenWeb to see if I could get digital or microfilmed copies. Nope. So I thought I’d have to figure out which of the two county courthouses to go to, find time to make the trip, get a babysitter, search out the records, and so on.

When I started planning a visit and called the courthouse (after first checking online for info on old records), the nice lady there said, “Oh, we don’t keep records that far back,” at which point I may have made strange choking sounds. Then she continued, “You’ll have to call the state archives in Frankfort.” 

I checked the Kentucky State Archives’ website and learned it does have divorce records from the time and place I needed, and you can print a request form to fill out and send with a $15 fee. Easy peasy.

A few days later, I had an email from a state archivist. The file was 103 pages(!) and I’d need to send an additional fee for copies of the whole thing.

When I called to pay over the phone, I asked the archivist what’s typically in a historical divorce file, just to make sure I wouldn’t be ordering a bunch of blank pages. She flipped through and said it looked pretty meaty, with lots of depositions. “We’ll get this copied today and sent out tomorrow,” she said.

After a few days impatient days, The Big Envelope was in my mailbox.  The first page had this on it:

I spread out the pages on the counter, squinting at the handwriting and trying to glean all the clues I could—such as my third-great-grandmother's maiden name—while protecting them from my 2-year-old's applesauce splatters.

"Meaty" is an accurate description. So far I've found all the makings of a tabloid-worthy divorce: accusations of cruelty and mental instability (along with a physician's testimony about my ancestor's "cycles"—I guess doctor-patient confidentiality was still in the future), custody fights, and insinuations of an improper relationship between my third-great-grandmother and a younger man.

I'm still going over the papers and I'll blog more later about genealogical clues I discover (that way I can call it work). 

Thinking about researching your ancestors' court records? Click here for tips on finding the right courthouse.

Then check out our courthouse research guide digital download, available in

Depending on the type of court records you're looking for, you'll also find in-depth help in our Using Guardianship Records in Genealogical Research video class with Marian Pierre-Louis and our Using Criminal Court Records on-demand webinar with Judy G. Russell.

court records | Female ancestors | Libraries and Archives | Research Tips
Tuesday, 05 February 2013 09:11:39 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [2]
# Monday, 28 January 2013
I Found the Maiden Name—But What Is It??
Posted by Diane

So I finally got my hands on a copy of the divorce case for my my third-great-grandparents, Thomas and Mary Frost (more later about how I got it). As I hoped, it has her maiden name!

There's just one problem—I can't read it, exactly:

Alanis Morrisette would call this situation ironic.

I searched for Mary Wol*am (the wildcard * can stand in for more than one letter). Some of the possibilities are Wollam, Wolam, Wolham, Woldham, Woltam and Wolfram.

I even found an 1850 census record for a Wollam family living in Ohio with a Mary of the right age, born about 1840. But this family has no Matilda, one of Mary's sisters, who gives her name but not her age in a deposition for the divorce case. The same family (I think) in later censuses doesn't have a Matilda, either, and is no longer in Ohio. (My third-great-grandparents married in Cincinnati in 1865.)

I can't find a family in the census that fits Wolham, my first thought when I read the name. And no luck yet in my search for a Wol-something-am (or a Frost) marriage record.

I've looked through the rest of the 103-page file for another maiden-name mention and can't find one, though the writing is really hard to make out in places. I need to spend some quality time with the document.

Are you searching for a female ancestor's maiden name? Check out our new Family Tree University course Finding Female Ancestors (I'm planning to!), which starts this week—it's open for registration through Friday. You'll get help developing a research strategy for female ancestors, teasing out maiden names and more.

Here's the link to learn more about the Finding Female Ancestors course.

court records | Female ancestors
Monday, 28 January 2013 12:30:21 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [21]
# Thursday, 06 December 2012
Special Sneak Peek: Using Criminal Court Records Webinar
Posted by Beth

Do you have a Jesse James in your family? What about a Wyatt Earp?

Sifting through criminal case files to find your ancestors in criminal court records is illuminating—whichever side of the law your ancestors are on.

The records created by the criminal justice system are "wonderful additions to any family history," says Using Criminal Court Records Webinar presenter Judy Russell, The Legal Genealogist, (For a video sneak peek of this Tuesday, Dec. 11 live webinar [7 p.m. ET], click here.)

Russell sums up those who are in the criminal justice system this way: "They came in all sizes, shapes, colors. They were men, women and even children. They acted out of greed or foolishness or just desperation—or were wrongly accused. And they became the criminals.

"They're among the most colorful characters in our family trees. They didn't toe the line, they went their own ways, and they did one thing that can't help but warm a genealogist's heart: They left records. Arrest records. Conviction records. Prison records."

"But they weren't all bad guys (or gals)," she adds. "Your ancestor might have played a different role: police officer, constable, judge, juror or witness."

Next week, "we'll take a look at a whole range of records created after a crime was committed, from police reports all the way to prison records," says Russell. "We'll look at cases prosecuted in local courts, state courts and federal courts. We'll look at some records from other countries. And we'll look at ways to find the records that relate to our ancestors in the many roles they played in the criminal justice system ... and what those records tell us about the times in which our ancestors lived."

Register now for this fascinating webinar!

court records | Research Tips | Webinars
Thursday, 06 December 2012 13:06:20 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [1]
# Wednesday, 26 September 2012
Courthouse Research Tips from the Virtual Genealogy Conference
Posted by Diane

Courthouse records can be some of the most revealing sources about your ancestors.

These Fall 2012 Virtual Genealogy Conference tips come from our live chat on Researching Courthouse Records, hosted by the Legal Genealogist Judy G. Russell.
  • Types of records you might find at a courthouse include civil and criminal court records, naturally, but also deeds and mortgages, tax lists,  county commissioner meeting minutes, vital records, business licenses, voter registrations, cattle brand registrations and more.
  • But depending on the place your family lived, older records may have been turned over to a local or state archives, historical society or library. Check in advance before you plan a courthouse trip.
  • "Keep in mind is that most of these facilities aren't really archives," Russell advised. "They're working offices trying to keep up with the day-to- day business of government. For the most part, they're not set up to do a lot of hand-holding." Find out as much as you can about the records you need—the date, a microfilm number or volume and page number, where they're located, etc.—before you go.

  • More things to know before you go: Check online for courthouse hours, holiday schedules and access information. The court may have limited hours when staff will pull files. Some won't allow personal scanners or cameras. Different types of records might be in different buildings or rooms. The local genealogy librarian and genealogical society are good sources to ask ahead of time about courthouse quirks.
  • See if the office holding the records you need has a busy season. Russell gave this example: "If the records you really want are the tax records, and the tax office's busy season is October, then going there in October just about guarantees that nobody is going to be available to help you—and they may not even allow record lookups at that time."
  • One chat participant advises you to dress nicely—"so you look like you might be a lawyer or paralegal." And if you have allergies to dust or mold, bring medication.
  • Look for an online or microfilmed index so you have all the volumes and page numbers you need in advance. Also see whether the Family History Library has microfilm of the records you need or even posted them online at
  • "Even 'burned counties' have some records," Russell said. "And don't forget many people re-recorded deeds, etc., after a courthouse fire."

Ready to head to the courthouse now? Click here to find out about our downloadable guide to researching in courthouse records, available in

Video classes from our Virtual Genealogy Conferences are available in And mark your calendar now for our Winter 2013 Virtual Genealogy Conference, Feb. 22-24.

court records | Genealogy Events | Research Tips
Wednesday, 26 September 2012 10:21:02 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Monday, 16 April 2012
Tips From My First Courthouse Research
Posted by Diane

This post would be more exciting if my courthouse research last week (right before I womanned our Family Tree Magazine booth at the Ohio Genealogical Society conference in Cleveland) had panned out.

But it was kind of a bust, genealogically speaking—no new information and some red tape.

I did learn a few things about courthouse research, though. If that’s what’s on your genealogy to-do list, these tips might help:

1. Ask a local. Cleveland genealogist and Family Tree University instructor Diana Crisman Smith gave me the lowdown on the Cuyahoga County courthouse, parking and other details. If you don't know someone knowledgeable about the place you’re headed, see if the local genealogical society has an online message board.

2. Have backup parking plans. The parking garage was full, so I drove around downtown and finally snagged the last space in a surface lot. Smaller towns might not have the same issues.

3. Be as prepared as possible. The Cuyahoga County probate court has an online docket you can search to find the case file numbers you need.

Other ways to be prepared: Call ahead and make sure there isn't a furlough day or special holiday on the day you plan to go. See if there are any restrictions on what you can bring (such as pens or backpacks). Bring cash for parking, copy fees and other expenses.

3. Don't be afraid to ask. I'm sure things work differently in every courthouse, but there was a procedure here. And there was no hand-holding, so I had to ask. I was told to write the case number on a request card for a clerk to retrieve the file. But for my relatively recent probate files (1980s and 90s), I was to use the computers to get microfilm numbers, then pull the film.

I thought all the microfilm readers were equally bad, but I should have asked about that too—a clerk walked by and showed me a better reader. Because the computerized docket didn't extend back as far as my great-grandfather's death, I had to ask about any earlier files, too (and unfortunately, I found out the court didn’t have anything for him).

4. Keep a smile on your face. Even if you think you’re bugging someone with your questions, a smile increases your chances of getting the help you need (as does a succinctly worded question).

5. Bring a camera. There was no place to photocopy the microfilmed records, so I photographed the reader’s screen with my cell phone.

I don't have a tip for this situation: The file I most wanted to look for, a 1924 commitment hearing for my great-grandmother to the Cleveland State Hospital, was confidential—if it exists. Disappointing.

I politely asked enough questions (is it possible to request a search just to see if there’s a file? how long are the records closed? what's the law declaring them closed? what's the procedure for having a file opened?) that I got to speak with a magistrate. He complimented my interest in genealogy, asked about my family history, and said that if the record exists—and chances are slim—the only way to have it opened would be a change in the law.

In the excellent book Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret, journalist Steve Luxenberg describes his quest to uncover 1940s-era institutional records in Michigan for an aunt he’d only recently learned he had. I don't think I want to let this drop quite yet, but I'm also not sure I'm ready for a struggle like Luxenberg's. I'll dig a little and maybe be able to offer tips in the future.

Get Family Tree Magazine's guide to courthouse research, a $4 download, from

court records
Monday, 16 April 2012 13:51:05 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #  Comments [4]
# Tuesday, 27 March 2012
Finding Your Ancestors' Probate Records
Posted by Diane

If you have dead ancestors, you should learn about probate records, it's been said. Probate files can be rich sources of genealogical information, and even poor folks might've left them.

So I hear, anyway. I haven't actually used probate records. Like many genealogists, I'm not quite sure how to approach them. And I need to get my act together fast, because I'm headed to the Cuyahoga County Probate Court this month

Good thing our Using Probate Records live webinar, presented by professional researcher Marian Pierre-Louis, is Thursday, April 5 at 8 p.m. ET.

Using Probate Records webinar

Marian will show you: 

  • What probate records are
  • How to find probate records
  • Different types of probate records
  • What you'll find in a typical probate record
  • How to make it easier to access probate records
  • Why probate records are critical to your genealogical success

Here's the basic info on the Using Probate Records webinar:

  • Date: Thursday, April 5, 2012
  • Starting time: 8 p.m. Eastern (7 Central/ 6 Mountain/ 5 Pacific)
  • Duration: 60 minutes
  • Price: $49.99 ($39.99 special if you register before April 2)
As usual, registered attendees will be able to download the presentation and slides to view again whenever they want. Click here to register for the Using Probate Records webinar in
court records | Editor's Pick | Webinars
Tuesday, 27 March 2012 12:09:38 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Tuesday, 17 January 2012
I'm Going to the Courthouse!
Posted by Diane

I've been itching for a chance to do in-person research at the courthouse where my ancestors lived ever since an archivist researcher recommended research there.

My great-grandmother spent two years in the Cleveland State Hospital before her death in 1926, and I requested a search of hospital admission and discharge records at the Ohio state archives (the hospital registers are closed to the public, so I couldn't view them myself). The archivist sent copies of the records (all names obscured except my ancestor's) with a suggestion to check the Cuyahoga County probate court for a commitment hearing.

The probate court handles wills and estates, marriages, guardianships and adoptions. When I contacted the court, I was told the staff doesn't fulfill research requests, but I was welcome to go in person to look for the record.

So my chance is coming up with the Ohio Genealogical Society conference April 12-14 in Cleveland! I'm super-excited—it's been awhile since I've done hands-on research.  

I figure while I'm there, I also can look up some other records: a great-uncle's marriage that's just a hair too recent to be on Family History Library microfilm, as well as some relatives' probate files.

I looked up the courthouse website and called to verify research hours and find out about any special requirements.

I also searched for case file numbers in the probate court online Case Records Search System an index that provides information including names of parties, dates and case numbers. (Not all courts have this type of index, but a web search on the county and court should find one if it does exist.) That should make most of my searching relatively easy, knock on wood.

But the index doesn't go as far back as 1924, when the commitment hearing would've happened, so I'm crossing my fingers hard that a hearing took place. I'll keep you updated on how it goes.

court records | Genealogy Events
Tuesday, 17 January 2012 16:48:58 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [2]
# Friday, 21 October 2011
New: Irish Prison Records at
Posted by Diane

Do you have an Irish ancestor who served time? You might have one who served time and you don’t know about it, given that’s new Irish Prison Registers 1790-1920 database contains 3.5 million entries at a time when Ireland’s population averaged 4.08 million.

The prison registers, which came the National Archives of Ireland, cover bridewells (places of detention), county prisons, sanatoriums for alcoholics and other institutions. Most records give the prisoner’s name, address, place of birth, occupation, religion, education, age, physical description, name and address of next of kin, crime, sentence, and incarceration start and ending dates.

Drunkenness accounted for more than 30 percent of crimes reported and more than 25 percent of incarcerations. Other common offenses in the registers are theft (16 percent), assault (12 percent), vagrancy (8 percent) and rioting (4 percent).

You can access the records with a subscription or with PayAsYouGo credits

For help finding Irish ancestors in court and other records, check out Family Tree University’s Irish Research 101 and 102 courses, as well as our $4 Irish Heritage Research Guide from

court records | UK and Irish roots
Friday, 21 October 2011 10:47:02 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Wednesday, 11 May 2011
FamilySearch Adds South Carolina Genealogy Resources
Posted by Diane

FamilySearch has announced new South Carolina genealogy resources to mark the National Genealogical Society Family History Conference, going on now in Charleston, SC: 

Probate records can be helpful in researching African-American ancestors, because probate files of slave owners often contain inventories of their slaves.

The Civil War, which of course started 150 years ago at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, is the talk of this year’s NGS conference. Click here to see FamilySearch’s related announcement about its Civil War records

African-American roots | court records | FamilySearch | Free Databases
Wednesday, 11 May 2011 09:31:11 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Wednesday, 29 December 2010
FamilySearch Adds New Records Online
Posted by jamie

FamilySearch has expanded again, adding over a million records and images to its already gargantuan digital depository.

It bolstered state-specific collections, as well as collections from Canada, Spain and Venezuela, by adding more names and digital images to existing indexes. FamilySearch also updated the U.S. Social Security Death Index database with more names and digital images, and created new databases of records that were not previously available online.

The new and updated collections include:

Note the indexes are free to access, but you must create a free account to view digital images of the original record.

View all of FamilySearch's online offerings on its historical records collections page.

court records | FamilySearch | Vital Records
Wednesday, 29 December 2010 11:01:14 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Thursday, 12 August 2010 Adds 6 Million Names From Probate Records
Posted by Diane

British genealogy subscription site has added a database called the National Probate Calendar, 1861-1941, which has 6 million names and other information from wills and probate records created in England and Wales during those years. (This database also is available on Canadian subscription site and on

In England, the Principal Probate Registry has been responsible for the probate process since 1858. Cases were summarized in the registry’s National Probate Calendar.

“There’s an entry for the vast majority of people who died in that period,” says spokesperson Russell James. The calendar may provide the deceased person’s full name, date and place of death, executor of his or her will (often another family member) and value of the estate.

You can use the information in the database to write the Principal Probate Registry for copies of the deceased’s will and probate records.

Related resource from Family Tree Magazine: | court records | UK and Irish roots
Thursday, 12 August 2010 12:20:23 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Monday, 04 January 2010
Ohio Probate Court Posts Online Records Archive
Posted by Diane

The probate court  for Hamilton County, Ohio—location of our hometown of Cincinnati—launched an Archived Record Search for records from 1791 to 1994.

It's not a database search where you type in a name. Instead, you open image files (PDFs or TIFs) of index books and/or record books for records including:
  • Estates, 1791 to 1984
  • Wills, 1791 to 1973
  • Trusts, 1791 to 1984
  • Guardianships, 1791 to 1984
  • Marriages, 1808 to 1983 
  • Minister's Licenses, 1963 to 1975 (index books only)
  • Birth Records, 1863 to 1908
  • Birth Registrations and Corrections, 1941 to 1994
  • Death Records, 1881 to 1908
  • Probate Court Journal Entries, 1791 to 1837 (no index; you must browse by volume and page number)
  • Physician Certificates, 1919 to 1987 (no index; you must browse by volume and page number)
I spent most of the Bengals' game last night opening and looking through the digitized books. I found a few people who may be relatives—giving me something to add to my 2010 to-do list.

Start by going to the Archive Record Search page and clicking the link for the type of record you’re interested in. On the next page, read the information: it’ll tell you whether the website has the index and/or the record volumes, whether the court has additional index or record volumes that aren’t online, years of coverage, and how complete the records are. 

If an index book is online, click the name of the record at the top of the page. Click on the alphabetical range for the surname you want, which opens the file (it may take awhile). You might have to check several index books if you're not sure of the year you need.

You also might have to scroll through the entire index: In some cases, surnames aren't alphabetized beyond the first letter, or all S surnames with E first names (for example) might be grouped.

Once you find a suspected relative in the index book, note the volume and page number. Then, if the record book is online, go back to the main page for that record and search for a volume and page number to see the record. Otherwise—assuming the record book still exists—you can request photocopies from the court or see if it's on FHL microfilm.

If there's no index book, check the information on the site to see which volumes cover which years. Then type in your best guess of a volume and page number, and start browsing.

court records | Free Databases | Vital Records
Monday, 04 January 2010 09:04:44 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [1]
# Friday, 04 September 2009
Searching Microfilmed Newspapers
Posted by Diane

This Federation of Genealogical Societies conference  is the first confab outside Ohio where I’ve been able to research ancestors. As soon as I got to Little Rock Wednesday, I checked into the hotel and ran off to the state archives.

I didn’t have a specific article to find—rather, I wanted any news item about my great-grandfather’s criminal trial for bootlegging. There wasn’t a name index, so I knew I was in for some heavy-duty scrolling. I had the conviction and incarceration dates, but not a date of arrest, so I had several months to cover in 1913.

First thing when I arrived, I got my very own research card. The archivist had me double-check holdings for the newspapers I wanted. I’d neglected to bring singles or a $5 bill for a copy card, so I also ran to the concession and bought a soda to get change.

Next, I requested a couple years’ worth of microfilm and started scrolling. I started with the dates I knew and scrolled backward through earlier papers, then forward, looking for headlines on the faded pages.

Bootlegging arrests filled the news--apparently the sheriff was really cracking down. The few items mentioning my ancestor’s name told when he was arrested, how he filed for a writ of habeas corpus, and how two others arrested at the same time jumped bail.

Though not the play-by-play trial accounts I was hoping for, the articles also gave me a clue to what might’ve happened to his missing court records. He served his prison sentence in Texas and his case is indexed in Bowie County, Texas, records, but a batch of files that includes his case number is missing.

According to the newspaper articles, some witnesses lived on the Arkansas side of Texarkana, and Bowie County officials traveled to the courthouse in Miller County, Ark., for a pretrial motion. So maybe his case file ended up in Arkansas.

Miller County court records for the years I need aren’t on Family History Library microfilm, so I’ll send a request to the circuit court clerk the minute I get home. Fingers crossed.

court records | Libraries and Archives | Newspapers
Friday, 04 September 2009 22:23:56 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Friday, 31 July 2009
Crimes of Your Great-Grandfathers
Posted by Diane

A couple of months ago, when I was editing an article criminal ancestors for the forthcoming November 2009 Family Tree Magazine, I asked Family Tree Magazine E-mail Update newsletter readers about murders and other crimes in their family history.

Dozens of you responded with stories—some are fascinating (in a can't-look-away kind of way), some are amusing (in a gallows-humor kind of way) and some are sad. Here's a sampling of them:
  • Carol Clemens' family legend was that her great-grandfather Martin Franchetti was accidentally shot and killed by a stray bullet from a saloon brawl in 1902.
After finding references to seven newspaper articles within a couple of months, she discovered her ancestor was shot during an argument with a former boarder who’d developed a crush on Franchetti’s wife. Clemens says help from the Schenectady County Clerk’s office was invaluable in locating the perpetrator's criminal trial records.
  • Cheri Adams couldn’t find anything about her the family of her great-great-grandmother’s second husband. A Google search brought up a New York Times article stating that the husband, Elijah Godfrey, was killed while handling dynamite in his cabin. Another article revealed that the medical examiner thought it was murder. “It seems Elijah had been speaking with authorities regarding stills in the area," writes Adams, "and undoubtedly due to his loose lips, the owners of the stills took revenge.”
  • Tom Neel of the Ohio Genealogical Society found an account in a 1915 county history about John Gately, his fourth-great-grandfather from North Carolina. “Sometime after the year 1793,” Gately’s father-in-law, thinking the younger man had stolen his money, killed him.
Neel found corroboration in court records while at this year’s National Genealogical Society conference in Raleigh, NC. Turns out the aging father-in-law had misplaced his stash.
  • Domenic Parenty, great-grandfather to Janice Gianotti-Zakis, was "gunned down in the street, defending a woman" in Chicago in 1894. In 2002, she confirmed the story in police records from microfiche at Northeastern Illinois University. Now, her ancestor’s case is chronicled on the site Homicide in Chicago: 1870-1930.
  • Kathleen Anders wasn’t interested in genealogy when she found a tombstone in a Nebraska cemetery with the names of two young people who died on the same day. On a return trip, the caretaker furnished a file of newspaper clippings: Anders' great-grandfather had taken the lives of his brother and sister-in-law in 1903. Over the next two years, she found the trial transcript and interviewed people who remembered her family.
With the mystery solved, she’s turned to ancestors whose less sensational lives still deserve to be known. “I now focus on the other lines of the family that have, in their own right, great stories to be researched and written about.”
  • Carol Heap’s grandfather Frederick Hirsch, a Nassau County, NY, police officer, was killed in the line of duty May 6, 1931, by a 19-year-old nicknamed "Two Gun Crowley." Crowley was convicted and sent to Sing Sing prison in New York, where he was executed in the electric chair in 1932. Hirsch's wife raised four young children alone; Heap remembers her father saying he really missed having a Dad.
  • Connie Parott received a copy of a relative's 1970s school essay detailing her third-great grandfather's efforts to track down the murderer of his brother Thomas at a Sylamore, Ark., Christmas Eve dance in 1877.

    She found several news articles, “but to my amazement,” she writes, “the stories favored excessive details about the murderer, but nothing about the victim. The murderer had accidentally shot himself in the leg while hiding in the woods. His leg was amputated, so the newspapers had a field day describing a one-legged man hanging from the gallows.”
Forum members also posted stories and tips for researching ancestral crimes here. You'll also find advice in the previously mentioned November 2009 Family Tree Magazine, on newsstands Sept. 8.

court records | Family Tree Magazine articles | Newspapers | Social History
Friday, 31 July 2009 15:47:24 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Wednesday, 14 January 2009
Me vs. Court Records at the Family History Library
Posted by Diane

I got into it with some court records during last Saturday’s Family History Library research match. When the final bell rang, the judges put their heads together for a few minutes and declared the score … a tie.

Out of the two cases I was looking for, a criminal trial and a divorce petition, I found the petition.

After much scrolling of microfilm, I located both cases listed in a handwritten index (in multiple indexes, in fact, which was a bit confusing). In a roll of district court minutes, I learned the divorce was transferred to a special district court.

The special district minutes, on a different roll of microfilm, reported the case was dismissed with court costs to be paid by the plaintiff, my great-grandmother (that made me chuckle—she was destitute; I doubt they ever got their money), but didn’t say why.

On yet another roll of film, I scored a pretty good hit: The case file held the divorce petition with my great-grandmother’s accusations against her husband, as well as a court order for the sheriff to serve him. He’d pled guilty to violating local liquor laws and was a guest of the state penitentiary at the time.

His case was even more challenging. The index gave a minute book number and a page number, but neither seemed to match up with the content on any roll of the FHL’s court records microfilm for the county. The trial was in June 1913, yet the case file number in the index corresponded to cases in the 1880s, long before my great-grandfather was in the country.

On the recommendation of the information desk consultant, I checked the 1880s case file film to see if a long-ago court clerk had misfiled the records. A batch of files that would’ve included my great-grandfather’s case file number was missing. There must’ve been a blip in the numbering system at some point.

Then I scrolled through the case papers for 1913—maybe the indexer wrote down the wrong number. Nothing.

The consultant pointed out that keeping track of the papers a court action generated over a stretch of time was particularly difficult before computers. And of course it’s possible the records escaped microfilming or are just gone.

I once requested my great-grandfather’s case records from the county court, but at that time all I knew was the date, not the information from the index, and my letter was returned with the note “found nothing.” Now, having spent hours glued to a microfilm reader getting nauseous from the whirring images, I hope my request didn’t cost the clerk half a day’s work.

I’ll probably risk the clerk’s ire and send another, very polite, request for a search, along with a photocopy of the index page.

court records | Family Tree Firsts | FamilySearch
Wednesday, 14 January 2009 08:02:35 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [1]
# Monday, 24 September 2007
Proceedings of London's Old Bailey Courthouse Online
Posted by Diane

I came across a cool resource while researching our Now What blog question about convicts sentenced to indentured servitude abroad.

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, London 1674 to 1834 is a searchable version of the accounts of more than 100,000 criminal trials held at London's central criminal court.

Elizabeth Cox is one of the “non-elite” (as the site calls them) whose trials are detailed here. On Oct. 8, 1684, she was found guilty of petty larceny for stealing a silk gown from George Winterton’s shop. Her sentence? Whipping.

The same day, a “notorious thief” named Anne Parker, who’d been convicted three times of stealing silver from households where she was employed as servant, received respite from her death sentence due to pregnancy.

You can browse by date or search the trials on a name, date, keyword, crime, place and a variety of other terms. Click a match for a transcription of the trial account, links to other trials the same day, plus a digitized image of the account as it appeared in the original volumes of Old Bailey proceedings.

The site also offers fascinating background information on the courthouse, laws of the day, the gender factor in criminal proceedings, and London communities.

Even better, a digitization project is underway for trials from 1834 to 1913.

court records | Genealogy Web Sites | International Genealogy | Social History
Monday, 24 September 2007 08:51:19 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #  Comments [1]