A Unique, Underused Set of Records: Court Minutes

Recently, I shared my love of chancery court files, but those aren’t the only court records I love.

Have you ever read original court minutes?

Court minutes are one of my favorite sources for genealogy resource. I rarely see them cited in online information. When they are, it appears that one person did the research and then others copied and pasted the same information, complete with the exact same (not original to the copy, but current human) typographical errors.

There is probably one reason why court minutes are such an overlooked resource – many records have no index or, at best, a very incomplete index. That puts off many people who never learn what a wealth of information those minutes hold. (Note, though, that by the mid-1800s, some county clerks actually created an index as they made entries.)

Why should you read court minutes?

Have any of your ancestors settled in a burned county? Plenty of my husband’s family has! Sometimes a burned county doesn’t mean total record loss. Perhaps the vital records burned, but not deeds. Maybe the deeds AND vital records are gone, BUT the court minutes survived. Even if un-indexed, those records might be the sole surviving primary source records for that area.

Did your family pass through, but not live in a county for very long? Did someone die as a young adult and no probate record has been found? Well, those relatives might be mentioned in court minutes.

If your family lived in a county for a long time – decades – you should make those court records an important stop on your research list.

If you’ve been reading my Elizabeth Gwinn Spear saga, you already know that one of the places I’ve searched is Surry County, North Carolina. Surry’s records don’t all begin in the same year, but some reach back to the founding of the county in 1771, when it was set off from Rowan County.

I’d like to share examples of several of the unique tidbits I’ve found in Surry County’s court minutes, which are like court minutes in just about every other county. All court business, ranging from deeds that are proven, wills ordered to be recorded, estate administrator’s report to be filed and lawsuits ranging from slander to debt and more, is noted in each court session.

Justices are identified, jurors are named, and, during the time of the American Revolution, traitors to the cause of independence are sometimes identified, as their estates were confiscated and handled through the court system.

Questions about ownership of enslaved people as well as children born out of wedlock were decided. Orphans’ guardians are often named and/or information as to whom the orphans were bound out is included.

Have I piqued your interest? Here are some examples of business items on the Surry County Court agenda in the 1770s and 1780s, all found in digitized records on FamilySearch.:

On motion of Col. Osborn Its ordered that Abraham Creson be Bound with Secty (security) in the Sum of £2000 with Condition that he produces here to the next Court a negro Woman named Jane Scott who lives with him & claims her freedom and that in the mean time that said Creson do not sell or otherwise Disposes of said negro or her four Children of any of them —
And the said Abraham did agreeable to this order Enter into Recog to the State in the Sum of 2000£ with (Say!)? Each for £

Gideon Wright & Jo. Williams Seals
Each £1000 for Abraham Creson preformance (sic) with the above


Ordered by the Court that Fielding Henderson a bastard Mulatto boy aged the 26th day of August fifteen years be found to Charles Worth untill (sic) he arrives to 21 years to learn the Art & Mistry (sic) of the Tanner trade & Serves (?) the said Charles agrees to learn him to read Write & Cypher as far as the rule of three inclusive & to give him two new suits of Clothes at his freedom.

These next two items don’t appear to be anything special. However, I had seen Robert Speer in the DAR Patriot Index with a death date of 15 August 1781 and a notation that he married a woman named Elizabeth. All the early Speers in Surry County appear to be related and I had no idea who this man was. He isn’t found in the land deeds nor in the probate records. Here are two entries made on 15 August 1782:

Henry Speer vs Robert Speer
N: On attachmt The Jury whose names are under written being impannelled & sworn for the Pltff £27080 Current Money & Cd Cost

1. James Sheppard
2. Reuben Dodson
3. Charles Dudley
4. Joel Swain
5. Jonathan Clarke
6. Airs Hudspeth
7. William Freeman
8. Phil Holcomb
9. John Martin
10. George Holcomb
11. Wyatt Garner
12. Henry Shore

Then, on the same page is this entry:

Henry Aires vs. Robert Speer
N: The same Jury as for N: being Sworn find for Pltff £320 Currency & C Cost.

There are no decimals that I see in the £27080 or in the £320 amounts that Robert Speer lost in the two suits against him. I don’t know how much either is worth in today’s currency, but converting £27080 in today’s dollars is almost $44,000. We are talking quite a fortune here unless the clerk meant £27.0.80, which seems more  likely.

The bigger question is why was Robert Speer being sued by a relative and another man both on the same day? There are no further details.

I found one more entry concerning Robert Speer in the May 1782 court session:

On the Resignation of Elizabeth Speer wife & Relict of Robert Speer Decd of her right of Administration on her said Husband’s Estate. Administration of said Estate is granted to Andrew Speer & Joshua Speer who Entered into Bond with Robert Ayres & Henry Speers Surt. in the sum of £500. Speer: Admr Qualified according to law A. Speer to pay fee.

Robert therefore died sometime between 15 August 1781 and May 1782. Not only was he sued by Henry Speer, but months later, Henry was the surety for Andrew and Joshua Speer, administrators of his estate. Hmm.

Is Roger Turner of Surry County an ancestor of yours? If so, here is proof he was a Tory, if not an outright Loyalist:

The Court taking into consideration the distressed situation of Catherine Turner & Children Wife of Roger Turner a Traitor to his Country having attached himself to the Enemies of the United States. Think it (proper)? (?) the commissioners of confiscated Estates in this County to (?) of (?) of the said Estate to Catherine Turner it appearing to the Court that there is not a (suffering or sufficience)  (?) Care & for the support of the woman and Children

The family of another Tory or Loyalist left destitute:

Ordered by the Court that Mrs. Keziah Murphy wife of Robert Murphy who has taken up arms against this and the United States on her application to the Court for the sustenance of herself & children out of her said Husband’s Estate be allowed the following articles to wit. four head of Horses seven head of Cattle six head of hogs & all the Household furniture in her possession.

One last example from the minutes, as a number of women are mentioned:

Ordered by the Court that Mary Nolin Enter in acct with four sur herself in £2000 & sury in £1000 enter for Keeping her Children from being Chargeable to the County & in Recog that she be of Good Behaviour towards the State.

Being that this entry was made in 1779, my guess, based on “she be of Good Behaviour towards the State,” is that her husband was a Tory and he has either died or fled somewhere.

These are just a few of the many, many kinds of details recorded in those court minutes.The best thing about this resource is that, being copyright free, many have been digitized and are already online at FamilySearch.

Have I convinced you to delve into all those old court minute books?




5 thoughts on “A Unique, Underused Set of Records: Court Minutes”

  1. How fascinating. The closest I’ve come to these kinds of records for my ancestors are the trial transcripts at the Old Bailey which have been digitized and are available for free…through those, I found some interesting items about several of my London relatives…

  2. I love reading court minutes! I started last year reading County Court Minutes from Hardin County Tennessee. It is slow going but I finished my first reel a couple of months ago. I found out that my third great-grandfather had a will. Unfortunately, it looks like that will book is missing. I also found out the name of my 3rd great-grandmother’s husband. Finding my ancestor’s names on the Road crews and looking up the road on a map gave me a better idea of where they were located in the county. I have about 3 or 4 more reels to read from Hardin County. Coincidentally, the next county that I will look to read Court Minutes will be Surry County, North Carolina as well.

  3. There are some published abstracts or transcriptions of court minutes. Mrs. W. O. Absher abstracted the earliest Surry County court minutes in a book published in 1985.

    I encourage anyone who reads the court minutes to create an index or preferably an abstract or transcription to help other people. And yourself, when you realize you need to re-read them!

    Many court minutes are on-line at FamilySearch (digitized microfilm) so this is a project you can complete at home.

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