I will never forget the first time I saw my grandfather's name on a deed. I was at the Campbell County, Ky., courthouse and had been doing genealogy for only a few years. I knew that my grandfather lived in the county but didn't know if he owned the property where he had resided. I was thrilled when I found the deed shortly after I arrived at the courthouse in the morning. I stayed on researching for the rest of the day and didn't want to leave when it was closing time. Thus began my love of courthouses and the records they contain.
Courthouse records are overflowing with genealogical information. These records were created to keep track of who owned what, who should be taxed, who married who, what should happen to an estate, how to settle disputes, and how to deal with criminals. In other words, the records in courthouses recorded our ancestors lives just as they record our lives today.
What kind of records can be found at the courthouse?
Land: Deeds are the most common land record found in a courthouse. Deeds were created when a property was bought and sold. Most counties have grantor and grantee indexes that will assist in finding deeds.
Probates and wills: Probate records denote the process to settle the estate of a person who has died. Probate documents might be stored together in a probate file or they may be recorded separately in books. There could be one probate book, or several divided by the type of record (will, bonds, inventory, etc.).
Tax: Just like today, if your ancestor owned land, he paid taxes. Even if your ancestor didn't own land, he would be listed on the personal tax records. Tax records can give clues about age, death, residence, and relationships. For example, Thomas Potter is listed for many years in the tax records. Then his wife, Ann, shows up on the records and Thomas disappears. It is likely that Thomas died.
Vital records: Birth, marriage, divorce, and death records may be housed at the courthouse. Marriage records will usually go back to the year the county was formed. Birth and death records are not as common since they were not required in most places until around 1912. Divorce records will be found in court records.
Criminal and civil court: Some of our ancestors had run-ins with the law and others had problems that needed to be settled in court. Court records are seldom used by genealogist; mostly because the research can be time consuming and tedious. But the time invested could be rewarded with a true genealogy gem that cannot be found anywhere else. Naturalization and divorce records are usually found in the court records.
Other records such as military discharge papers, voter registrations, and coroner records may also be found in the courthouse. The exact records in each courthouse will vary and will differ for different time periods.
Prepare before attempting to visit the courthouse. First check to be sure you have the correct county. County boundaries changed over time so it is always a good idea to verify that the area where your ancestor lived was in the same county it is today. The Handybook for Genealogist is a good resource for finding county information.
Before traveling to the courthouse, check it's Website for hours and policies. Get a list of the records held at the courthouse and what time periods the records cover. Some of the records may have been transferred to state archives or to offsite storage facilities.
Find out which office holds which records. It may be the Clerk of Courts, the Register of Deeds, or the Probate Court. For instance, you might expect the Register of Deeds to have the land records. But they may also have the births, marriages, and other kinds of records.
Be organized, make a list of the names, dates, and places of residence for all the people you are researching. This will help you to stay focused.
Check to see if there have been any indexes published on the courthouse records. Your local library may have copies of the books or you might need to stop at the closest library to the courthouse to access these books.
There are not a lot of courthouse records online. The majority of records will need to accessed at the courthouse. A small percentage of courthouse records have been microfilmed by the Family History Library. Check the Library catalog for the place and time you are researching. A good reference for courthouse records is Courthouse Research for Family Historians: Your Guide to Genealogical Treasures by Christine Rose.
You can't research your families history without researching the records at the courthouse. These records are invaluable in piecing together the trials and triumphs that were the lives of our ancestors.