Tag Archives: Court 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!