Courthouses across the nation are treasure houses for anybody doing family history research. Your ancestors no doubt visited one — or several — and you will too.

What records?

The records kept there may provide the answer to a genealogy problem or find a missing ancestor. Their records are probably organized in different ways in different locations and are varied. For example, courthouse records may include:

• Early birth and death: Counties often stored these registers before states assumed vital record-keeping.

• Probate: Wills, estate inventories, settlement papers, guardianship appointments and more.

• Deeds: Contracts transferring ownership of land and sometimes other property (including slaves).

• Tax lists: Registers of those who paid property, poll and other taxes.

• Divorce: Divorce petitions, case testimony, decrees, etc. (You may find a lost maiden name in the record.)

• Naturalization: Before 1906, immigrants could file for naturalization with any court—local, state or federal.

• Case files: Testimony, evidence, subpoenas and other records relevant to civil or criminal court cases.

• Dockets: Schedule of the court’s hearings.

• Minutes: Brief record of the actions for the court for each day.

• Manumissions: Documents freeing slaves.

• Orders: Cases heard and judgments to be carried out.

• Military discharges: Many service members would file these records with the courthouse in their county of residence, a potential substitute if your ancestor’s service records were destroyed.

• Licenses: Such as for businesses, medical practitioners or dog owners.

• Wolf-scalp bounties: Some counties would pay residents a bounty for each wolf scalp turned in.

Sometimes you can find these records digitized on courthouse websites or on FamilySearch.org.

The visit

Before making a trip to any courthouse, find out if it has the records (types, years) of interest. Can you get copies? How much? Hours/days of operation?

Remember that the courthouse staff is there to work with today’s records, they are not there to do your research. Always be courteous and polite but don’t be surprised if they know little or nothing about old records; those records did not leave a forwarding address when they were stored across town a hundred years ago. Then try the county historical or genealogical society.

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