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Wednesday, October 29, 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
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
instructions for borrowing Family History Library microfilm here)
or if you're lucky, digitized online.
- adoption records
- bastardy cases
- civil records
- coroners’ files
- criminal case files
- custody papers
- divorce case files
- estate inventories
- guardianship papers
- indenture contracts
- insanity/commitment orders
- jury lists
- justice of the peace records
- livestock brands and marks
- marriage bonds, licenses and certificates
- military discharges
- minute books
- mortgages and leases
- name changes
- oaths of allegiance
- prenuptial agreements
- probate files
- property foreclosures
- registers of births or deaths
- tax records
- voter registrations
- wolf-scalp bounties
To find digitized court records for your ancestral county or town on
FamilySearch.org, 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 "
Jefferson County Court Records, 1797-1947" or"
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.)
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, October 29, 2014 2:13:27 PM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)
Monday, April 28, 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
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
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 FamilyTreeUniversity.com.
court records | Family Tree University | Research Tips
Monday, April 28, 2014 12:23:03 PM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Wednesday, April 09, 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 FamilySearch.org.
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
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
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 FamilySearch.org—including the unindexed, not-searchable ones—check out our webinar 10 Simple Strategies for Using FamilySearch.org, happening Wednesday, April 16.
court records | Family Tree University | FamilySearch | Research Tips
Wednesday, April 09, 2014 2:14:35 PM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Thursday, January 16, 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
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
What was lost? No one was able to do a complete inventory of the
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
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
her story and see photos.
court records | Genealogy societies | Historic preservation | Public Records
Thursday, January 16, 2014 9:48:34 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)
Wednesday, October 16, 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
"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
Strategies: Criminal Records download helps you track down
court, prison and other records of ancestors who strayed to the
wrong side of the law.
- Family stories. They aren't always true, as we've seen on
"Genealogy Roadshow," but there's often a grain of truth behind
- 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
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
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
Watch this week's "Genealogy
Roadshow" online here.
court records | Genealogy TV | Newspapers
Wednesday, October 16, 2013 12:58:21 PM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Thursday, September 26, 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.
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
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, September 26, 2013 10:13:54 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Wednesday, July 31, 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
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:
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.
- 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
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 ShopFamilyTree.com. 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, July 31, 2013 10:15:01 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Thursday, April 04, 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
filing in Texas and a revealing divorce
case in Kentucky.
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
- Be observant. In addition to the records you came for,
keep an eye out for clues to other court records about your
- 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 FamilySearch.org. 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, April 04, 2013 9:25:57 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)
Tuesday, February 05, 2013
Tabloid Divorces Have Nothing on These Ancestors
Posted by Diane
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 FamilySearch.org,
Ancestry.com 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 FamilyTreeMagazine.com tips on finding the right courthouse.
Then check out our courthouse research guide digital download, available in ShopFamilyTree.com.
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, February 05, 2013 9:11:39 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)
Monday, January 28, 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 Ancestry.com 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
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.
the link to learn more about the Finding Female Ancestors course.
court records | Female ancestors
Monday, January 28, 2013 12:30:21 PM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)
Thursday, December 06, 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, December 06, 2012 1:06:20 PM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)
Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Courthouse Research Tips from the Virtual Genealogy Conference
Posted by Diane
Courthouse records can be some of the most revealing sources about
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
- 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
- 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 FamilySearch.org.
'burned counties' have some records," Russell said. "And don't
forget many people re-recorded deeds, etc., after a courthouse
Ready to head to the courthouse now? Click
here to find out about our downloadable guide to researching in courthouse
records, available in ShopFamilyTree.com.
from our Virtual Genealogy Conferences are available in
ShopFamilyTree.com. And mark your calendar now for our Winter
2013 Virtual Genealogy Conference, Feb. 22-24.
court records | Genealogy Events | Research Tips
Wednesday, September 26, 2012 10:21:02 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Monday, April 16, 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 ShopFamilyTree.com.
Monday, April 16, 2012 1:51:05 PM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Tuesday, March 27, 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.
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:
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 ShopFamilyTree.com.
- 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)
court records | Editor's Pick | Webinars
Tuesday, March 27, 2012 12:09:38 PM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)
Tuesday, January 17, 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, January 17, 2012 4:48:58 PM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)
Friday, October 21, 2011
New: Irish Prison Records at FindMyPast.ie
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 FindMyPast.ie’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 FindMyPast.ie 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 ShopFamilyTree.com.
court records | UK and Irish roots
Friday, October 21, 2011 10:47:02 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Wednesday, May 11, 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, May 11, 2011 9:31:11 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Wednesday, December 29, 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, December 29, 2010 11:01:14 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)
Thursday, August 12, 2010
Ancestry.co.uk Adds 6 Million Names From Probate Records
Posted by Diane
British genealogy subscription site Ancestry.co.uk 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 Ancestry.ca and on Ancestry.com.)
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 Ancestry.co.uk 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:
Ancestry.com | court records | UK and Irish roots
Thursday, August 12, 2010 12:20:23 PM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Monday, January 04, 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:
- Guardianships, 1791 to 1984
- 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)
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.
- Physician Certificates, 1919 to 1987 (no index; you must browse by volume and page number)
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, January 04, 2010 9:04:44 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)
Friday, September 04, 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
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, September 04, 2009 10:23:56 PM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Friday, July 31, 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.
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.
- 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.”
court records | Family Tree Magazine articles | Newspapers | Social History
Friday, July 31, 2009 3:47:24 PM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Wednesday, January 14, 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, January 14, 2009 8:02:35 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)
Monday, September 24, 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, September 24, 2007 8:51:19 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)