Category Archives: Court House Records

Dig Deeper in Genealogy Research: Court Records

One of the goals when I started this blog was to share methodology tips and resources. Today, I’d like to highlight what, oddly at least to me, is a very under-used set of records that can be invaluable in genealogy research.

Those records are court records. Have you even sought out digital collections of original court records? if not, I’m here to share what you might be overlooking, to the detriment of your research.

Court records are such a common resource in most counties in America so why would I refer to them as “Under-used.” Two reasons. First, while a number of helpful researchers have abstracted early court records and published their books, most of those books are under copyright protection so have to be accessed in-person in a library. Second, while many county court records have been digitized, indexes are often incomplete or totally missing. In this day and age of copy-and-paste researchers, many genealogists won’t take the time to read page by page through these valuable records.

What kinds of records were kept by various types of local courts?

Adoption Records – A caveat with this one. Most modern adoption records are sealed and need a court order to open. Adoptions that took place pre-20th century were mostly informal between families and were never formally registered in a court record. I’ll never say never, but locating an adoption record is tricky and difficult.

Animal Entries – Predatory animals were considered a nuisance and towns often offered bounties for, say, wolf scalps. On the surface, this doesn’t add much to our ancestral knowledge, but it definitely places an ancestor in one location at a specific time. Additionally, branding marks of various owners were also recorded in early court records, again placing an ancestor in a place at a given time.

Bastardy Records – There was no welfare state in colonial times. If a young lady became pregnant out of wedlock, the local government wanted to be sure someone was held financially responsible because she wasn’t going to become a town charge. Sometimes, a women is only identified by her name, sometimes she is identified as someone’s daughter and, occasionally, the reputed father is named and/or charged in court. Personally, I’ve come across these records both in New England the South in my own research.

Commitment Orders – Town residents of any age could be committed to hospitals (usually state hospitals) for various maladies ranging from epilepsy to dementia if the family or community petitioned the court and the town would pay the expenses. Likewise, the court could order an indigent person to live at the county farm or poorhouse, as they were called. If not actually committed, a person (over 21) might be put under the guardianship of a responsible man.

Coroners Records – If you suspect an ancestor met an untimely death, it’s worth looking for coroners’ inquest records. Occasionally, the original records might be accessible, but often only the coroners’ findings are noted in court minutes.

Court Minutes – Detailed notes on court sessions recorded by the clerk

Court Orders – One sentence summary of an action ordered by the judge (e.g. The sheriff is ordered to sell the land of XXX for non-payment of taxes.)

Criminal Proceedings – Depending on the type of case, these records might be found in county court or a separate court, like the state supreme court. Locating original files is difficult, but court minutes contain updates on the progress of a case.

Guardianship Records – As with bastardy proceedings, the court wanted to determine who would accept custody of minor children if their father died. Note that it is very possible that the mother was still living. However, unless she remarried, the court didn’t deem her financially reliable to raise her own children. In the case of a well-to-do man who left a sizable estate, guardians would be appointed to look out for the interests of minor children until they reached legal age. These records may just give the child’s name, but often include an exact date of birth or at least his/her age and yearly reports should be filed. Children aged 14 or older cold choose their guardian.

Jury Lists – Men of some social and economic status were selected to serve on juries. As today, they received a summons from the court and, back then, it was the sheriff’s job to deliver them.

Lawsuits – Americans have long been a litigious people. Look to court records for names of those parties involved, reasons for the suit and outcomes decided by judge or jury.

Licenses – A license approved by the court was necessary for a number of occupations, including making alcohol, running a hotel and providing ferry service across rivers. These are all found in court minutes.

Military Records – Everything from Revolutionary War soldier pension application to World War II military discharge records might have been recorded by the court.

Name Changes – Modern day name changes are recorded by the court. Note: In the past, anyone could change his/her legal name without the formality of filing a form with the court. It was not illegal to change one’s name for social purposes. It was only illegal if the name change was precipitated by criminal actions.

Naturalization Records – These records were filed in a variety of local courts and the original records may be found anywhere from the courthouse to the National Archives. Only a handful of these records have been digitized.

Probate Records – Probate is the process of administering the estate of a deceased person, whether they died testate (with a will) or intestate (with no will). The court minutes will report on progress of an estate administration. Records include recording of wills, estate inventories, sales inventories, accountings in the interests of minor children, declaration of insolvent estates and agreement by heirs in estate divisions.

I hope some item in this list will prompt you to take the first step into reading original court records. They are pretty entertaining to read even if you don’t find your ancestor mentioned. Begin your court records search on FamilySearch, looking at the county and state of interest. Use the index, if one is provided, but don’t rely only on the index. I can’t repeat enough times – they are often INCOMPLETE and you might miss important details about your ancestor. Good luck and have fun!

Leave No Stone Unturned: James Wylie, Died Mecklenburg County, NC 1772 & Chancery Suit in Roane County, TN 54 Years Later

What is your preferred online search method for searching genealogy records? Do you enter a person’s name in the search box and stop there? If yes, then you are missing out on a world of great resources.

One of my favorite record sets is the minutes of a chancery court session. Chancery courts heard non-criminal complaints at the county or regional level. Family disputes were taken to chancery courts for decisions and those arguments were most often based on estate distributions and property ownership.

How do you find chancery court records? FamilySearch is a great starting place. Instead of entering a person’s name on the search tab, scroll down the menu tab to CATALOG and enter a place (state and county) name. Next, scroll the records for that county and look at Court Records. Look for Chancery Court records. Many of those early records have been digitized, BUT the book indexes, if they exist, are often incomplete.

You will need to browse and read page by page, but I promise, it is well worth your time if you find mentions of your ancestor’s family.

Here is a not-so-uncommon example of the kind of details to be found in these lawsuits:

While chasing BSOs , in the form of the Roane County, Tennessee Chancery Court Records, 1824-1845, FHL Film 008479252,  I was distracted by the lawsuit of the heirs of James Wylie who died in January 1772 in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, leaving a last will and testament detailing a sizable estate.

First, let me say that the Wylie family is not related to my husband’s family in any way and I can’t add to the details posted here, but I wanted to share this information for a couple of reasons.

1. This record set has a minimal index at the front of 668 pages of images (with 2 pages in each image!). Most of the entries in this digitized film are NOT indexed. I’ve said before that it is well worth the time to read court records page by page because they contain a wealth of information probably not found elsewhere.

2. There are descendants of James Wylie today. He is found on the FamilySearch family tree and there are online trees for him on Ancestry. However, most of the trees have as their single source an Ancestry tree and only name one or two of his nine documented children! James’s wife has been collapsed into one person by combining her and her daughter.

James Wylie’s entry in the FamilySearch tree alluded to this lawsuit, but didn’t give details and failed to post James’s widow’s second marriage and three additional children, all named in the lawsuit.

The chancery court lawsuit is one of the first cases heard by the Eastern Tennessee court in 1825. There are 22 (!!!!) pages of notes recorded by the clerk of the court, including the will of James Wylie, receipts signed by various relatives in the 1700s, estate inventories and more.

Because the record is so long, I am not posting any of the images here. However, anyone who is interested should begin with Image #12 in the above cited FHL film, viewable from home.

This is another example of many people with some of the same family information, but none of whom appear to have done any original research for themselves. They are missing out big time!

To illustrate what descendants are overlooking, I took some notes. James mentioned his eight children by name, plus the unborn child his wife Martha was expecting. In his will, James also mentions “until his children come of age” several times, but then gives land to his sons. It’s impossible to determine how many children are minors from the wording. Only Harris is identified as the youngest child.

Here are further details not in the will, but included in the lawsuit filed by they surviving children of James Wylie and heard by the chancery court in June 1825:

James’s  children were (Birth years estimated between 21 year old John and 2 year old Harris, their ages when James died):

1. John, eldest & 21 years old when his father died, so born c1751. John died within a year or two of his father, c1773
2. Thomas, next oldest child, born c1754, also died with a year or two of his father, c1773
3. James, born c1757, brought the lawsuit
4. Margaret, born c1759; married James Hall; lives in Blount County, TN
5. Robert, born c1761, died “10-12 years ago”, Greene County, TN; married Dorcas, who was party to the lawsuit
6. Jane, born c1764, married as a minor to Francis McCall; he died a few years before in western Tennessee; Jane then went to Mississippi
7. Martha, born c1766, married as a minor to Henry Miller. He died in August 1819, Roane County, Tennessee.
8. Harris McKinley; born c1769 (noted as 2 years old when his father died), currently living in Alabama
9. The last child, born 1772,  died in infancy.

Further, a year or two after James Wylie died, Martha married (2) David Miller. They had three children:

  1. Andrew, died with no descendants
  2. Elizabeth who married Thomas Taylor. Both died before the lawsuit but had “numerous” children.
  3. Isabella who married Baldwin Harle of Jefferson County, Tennessee

David and Martha Miller lived on James Wylie’s plantation in Mecklenburg County until about 1776. They removed to Botetourt County, Virginia, then about 1780/1 to Washington County, Tennessee and, finally, to Blount County, Tennessee.

Martha died c1814 and David died intestate in March 1819.

James Wylie, in his complaint, reasoned that the American Revolution disrupted court activities in North Carolina, his father’s heirs except for John were all minors when he died, property that should have gone to the heirs was sold off by David Miller during his lifetime and, finally, James repeatedly asked his mother and stepfather to make good on the legacies due to James’s children, but they replied they wanted to leave out their last years in comfort.

Defendant Baldwin Harle’s reply to the Wylie complaint was that not all the heirs were named in the complaint and while he knew nothing of how David and Martha Miller handled the estate of James Wylie, 54 years later was too late to come looking for an inheritance when James Jr. hadn’t held his mother or stepfather accountable during their lifetimes.

The chancery court agreed with Baldwin Harle and dismissed the complaint.

In summary, not only is a huge amount of information documented about the Wylie family, but a myriad of new places are mentioned where further records about the family might be found.

A quick search of Tennessee records shows marriages for Harris Wylie to Arty Taylor, 4 October 1790, Washington County; Robert Harris to Dorcas Balch, 5 September 1797, Green County, Tennessee.

I am sure many more records can be found to supplement the plethora of facts in this lawsuit.

Take the time to do your own research and dig deep!



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?