Digging Through the Court House

It still amazes me to hear people say, “Oh, I have looked for Ancestor X everywhere and I can’t find anything about him.” When I ask exactly where he/she has looked, I invariably get the same answer – the big name websites and because nothing was found on them, there is “nothing” out there because “everything” is online.

This is much more of a newbie mistake, but I’ve heard variations of this from more seasoned researchers, too, so I decided to share my experience visiting the Barry County, Missouri courthouse way back around 1990.

Although my visit was pre-internet, my findings might as well have been yesterday because this stuff still isn’t online.

Way back when, my husband’s aunt and uncle and Dave and I all visited Barry County, Missouri, home of the black sheep 2X great grandfather, Isaac Sturgell. Dave and his uncle Dale went off to visit Branson, while Freda and I hit the courthouse in Cassville.

Barry County was formed in 1835. The first court house, built of wood, went up in 1846. The second building, of brick, was completed in 1856. The current court house, seen above, is a beautiful old stone building, erected in 1913 on the site of the 1856 court house. The records in Barry County are quite complete, with only some minor record losses due to fire and its holdings are similar to what can be found in other counties across the United States.

A major collection to be found in any county court house is that which deals with land and property records. It is this collection which most people check when looking for family records. This is also the collection which is most likely to have been filmed for public use.

However, land and property includes more than just deeds of sale. There are mortgages and quit claims. Did you know that powers of attorney were also traditionally entered into the land records? That is because if a property owner lived too far away to come in person to the court house, he/she appointed someone to represent their interests. Thus, the p.a. was filed in the land records.

There are often early entry books identifying the first settlers, plat books and early land survey books. Back in 1990, my onsite visit caused a major crack in the Sturgell brick wall that had confounded Freda and I for years. The last record of Isaac’s wife, Mary, was the 1860 census and we had assumed she died, as Isaac was remarried in 1870. The Recorder of Deeds had an index covering the latter years of the 19th century, which we hadn’t seen before. In it, we found an entry for “Mary Cookman” aka “Mary Sturgell,” regarding a quit claim filed in Peoria County, Illinois in 1883. It turned out that Mary left Isaac, took the daughters and moved near where her siblings had settled. In a split second, we had an entirely new area in which to hunt for Sturgells.

Depending on the time period when your ancestor settled in a given place, the land surveys, entry books and plat books might give you not only records tied into your own family, but will give you the FAN club – friends, associates and neighbors. Remember, families didn’t often travel alone – it was too dangerous. They migrated from place to place with their FAN clubs. These books often contain diagrams that include natural landmarks like creeks, rivers and mountains, that are still viable today to identify exactly where your ancestor lived. These books are especially valuable if your family lived in a metes and bounds land system – e.g. Beginning at the old oak tree at the corner of Jones and Williams, 50 rods northeasterly. . . . .” With the public land survey system states, these books are still of interest, but perhaps not as essential.

What else is to be found in the court house? Lots! Vital records were recorded at the court house (outside of New England, where town clerks performed this service), although in the early years, these records only included marriages.

Yes, many marriage returns have been microfilmed, but did you know that the county clerk often kept the applications for marriage licenses? Often times, those applications were overlooked or not deemed important enough when filming was done. The applications often have way more detail on them than the actual license.

The Barry County court house has some naturalization records mixed among the land deeds and from experience, I know that happened in other places, too. Naturalizations are fabulous records and very few places have digitized and put them online.

Another item found in Barry County, which I haven’t seen elsewhere is military records. Barry County keeps a copy of U.S. armed forces discharge papers! Do you remember the huge fire at NARA in St. Louis in 1973? If you have family who served in the military during the 20th century, their records might be gone. It has been estimated that 80% of the U.S. Army records from 1912-1960 (both World Wars and Korea) burned and 75% of the Air Force records from 1947-1967 (Korea and Vietnam) are also gone. However, if your family lived in Barry County, the county clerk might be able to provide a copy of your family member’s discharge papers! These records have NOT been digitized to my knowledge.

Another gem of a record that I found in Barry County was a divorce packet that I don’t think anyone had looked at since it was filed in 1876.

Susan Alberty Divorce
Susan Douthit Alberty Sturgell

Isaac Sturgell’s second wife, Susan Alberty Douthit, divorced him in the mid 1870s, accusing him of squandering her first husband’s estate, not providing food for her and their children and for bringing loose women to stay in their home! The note above acknowledges that she received the gray mare from Isaac as a settlement. These records are only accessible by a visit to Cassville.

Probate records are also housed at the county court house. This collection includes many items besides wills. There are administrators’ and executors’ letters of administration, bonds that were posted, inventories, appraisements, sales and settlement records.  There are also guardians’ records, which often continue for a number of years, depending on the age of children involved. Probate files are probably the second most common set of records digitized, but often only partial collections are included in the filming/digitization process.

If all these records weren’t enough, there is more! There are court minutes, civil and criminal records, tax records, adoption records (often closed) and TAX records, which are also fabulous. Tax records have been filmed in some places – notably Kentucky counties, as I’ve used those – but they are much less common than I would expect, given how valuable they can be in research.

Voter registration records are also found at the county level, as are many records of the road system in the county. By the way, these road records often mention those who lived along them:

Sturgis A. Thomas

Sturgis Thomas’s record happens to be published, but most data like this remains hidden in the court house.

Last, but certainly not least, there is a genea-gem of a category to be found in many court houses – the “loose records.” Those are the records that were never thrown out, but not filed and recorded either. Perhaps a fee was never paid or a signature was missing or whatever. It was in these loose records found in Roane County, Tennessee that the will of Charles Williams of Morgan County, who died in 1825, was found. This is really important because Morgan County lost its records in 1862. Charles lived in Roane County before Morgan was split off in 1819 and I think maybe some of his land might have been in Roane County. However, the will was never officially recorded and was discovered by local historians in a box full of old papers – old, but valuable!

When you start checking county records for your family, make sure you actually check online or by phone with a clerk. Find out what is still housed in that court house, what is known to be lost and then determine which records do not appear to ever have been filmed or digitized. You won’t be sorry!

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