County Hunting
2/5/2013
Click your way to court, land and vital records on the Web.

Some of the most important genealogical documents are kept at the county level. But you don't have to trek to your ancestors' old stomping grounds to find them. Now, you can access many of these records without leaving home—thanks to government agencies creating online databases of their holdings. Here's a look at two agencies in your ancestral county that are keeping up with the information age.

Clerk of courts
The clerk of courts, or county clerk, holds court-proceedings records (appeals, affidavits, indictments), residential records (changes of address, leases, mortgage deeds) and other personal records (name changes, wills, military discharge papers, vital records).

Many clerks of courts have online databases of these records, so you can search for your ancestors' documents and then order copies. Keep in mind that these databases are new, so some agencies have indexed decades-old records, while others have indexed only recent records, or none at all. But be patient; these projects are ongoing.

To find a clerk of courts' Web site, type the county name, followed by clerk of courts, into a search engine such as Google. For example, if you wanted to find the Hillsborough County (Fla.) Clerk of Courts site, you'd type in Hillsborough County Clerk of Courts (try putting quotes around the terms—for example, "clerk of courts"—to search for an exact phrase).

From the clerk of courts' home page, look for a text or graphical link that refers to public records or online records. A disclaimer usually precedes the actual online database, stating that the search is intended for informational purposes only (as opposed to using the records for legal action). Just click OK or I Agree to go to the database.

You can search the database by party name (individual or business), and on some sites, you can limit your search by date or document-type code (there should be a list of codes, such as MAR for marriage records). Search results vary by county. Sometimes, you can view the full record online, either in a text format or as a scanned image. Other agencies provide only a brief description of the record and its location. But once you find your ancestors' documents, you can order copies for a few dollars (the price goes up with the number of pages).

County property appraiser
If you know your ancestors' address and want to find out who currently lives there, when the house was built and the current property value, look for your ancestral county's property appraiser's Web site. Just type the county name, followed by property appraiser (or tax assessor or auditor), into Google or another search engine.

When you find the site for your ancestral county, look for terms such as appraisal roll, property research or real estate to link to a public database of properties. Then, you can search by owner or street address to find a general property assessment, tax information and sales records, detailing when the house was sold and for how much.

As with clerk of courts records, available information varies by county. But you might be lucky enough to find a map and a detailed property description, listing the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and even building materials, in your ancestors' house.

After finding your forebears' county records, consider visiting your ancestral courthouse to see the documents in person—and to see what treasures aren't yet digitized.
 
For help finding your ancestors' records in county courthouses, see the County Courthouse Book by Elizabeth Petty Bentley, available from ShopFamilyTree.com.
 
For more tips on research in county courthouse records, see the September 2008 Family Tree Magazine.
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