Chase Down Court Records
Most of the records previously discussed in this chapter, as well as land records (covered in Chapter 8) and naturalization records (see Chapter 10), can be found in the town hall or county courthouse where your ancestors lived. This is because the local courthouse is generally where official business was conducted — where your ancestor would have gone to apply for a marriage license, file settlement papers for an estate, record a land deed, pay his taxes, register to vote, or transact other business of day-to-day life.
In addition to the records mentioned above and discussed elsewhere in this book, court records also document cases involving civil and criminal actions. Don't be afraid to search these records because you're afraid of what you might find. It's not unusual to discover relatives sprinkled throughout court records for minor civil proceedings involving property line disputes, bastardy bonds, and unpaid debts.
Your ancestor did not even have to be accused of anything to appear in court records. He may have provided witness testimony for a friend or neighbor or posted bond money for a relative. Or he might be named in county businesses transactions — assigned as a local tax collector, or to oversee repair of a county road. Most of you will find few surprises, but even one or two unexpected mentions of your ancestor may help you in your search. If nothing else, court records can sometimes offer amusing fodder for your family history.
In the United States, every state has a system of local courts that handles most of the local business and transactions likely to have involved your ancestors. Use the Internet (e.g., edgecombe county nc courthouse or south dakota courts) to search for information on the court system and courts in the town or county where your ancestor lived. The USGenWebsite (
The majority of court records will not be found online, but many court offices maintain some sort of virtual presence. The courthouse website may include information on the various offices within the courthouse and the records under their jurisdiction, the hours of operation, and, in some cases, details on how to request record lookups by mail or e-mail. Some courthouse offices, especially the Recorder of Deeds, may have indexes or other historical records online. The local library, historical society, or USGenWebsite may have published online guides or indexes to local court files. You can also check the Family History Library Catalog online to see if any court records have been microfilmed for your locality of interest, and request these for perusal through your local Family History Center.
State and Local Government on the Net (