Tips to Research Your Genealogy in Courthouse Records
5/20/2013
You can't beat the county courthouse as a source for historical records. Crack your ancestors' case files with these guidelines from The Family Tree Resource Book for Genealogists.
The county courthouse. It's the place to find your ancestors. Today genealogists are used to heading straight to the computer to uncover information about their kin—and what you'll find online does indeed help your search. But if you stop there, you're missing the mother lode: Historical records galore are just waiting to be discovered at the brick-and-mortar sites across the nation. In the couny courthouse or town tall, for example, you can find everything from adoptions and apprenticeships to wills and wolf-scalp bounties.

The best part: You can access most of these records without making a trip to your ancestors' county. Although you probably won't find many of the courthouse's records online, you can find microfilmed copies of numerous county and town records at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City. Search the FHL's online catalog for a county name and record type. If you find promising microfilms, go to your neighborhood FamilySearch Center, a branch of the FHL, and ask to borrow them. To find a FamilySearch Center near you, search here.

Some court records are digitized at FamilySearch.org (filter the list by state, then look for court records titles). If the collection you need hasn't been indexed, you won't be able to search by name. Instead, you'll need to browse the records by county, type of record and date.

You'll also find microfilmed county courthouse records at state libraries and archives, as well as some large public libraries. In fact, if you have ancestors from several counties in one state, you could save time and money by visiting the state library or archives: That's where many courthouses and towns deposit the original records they no longer have room to store. Before you go, call the repository to check on its holdings.

Red-letter requests

If none of those options works for you, get out your pen and paper. Good old-fashioned letter-writing has worked for genealogists for decades, and it's still a good way to get records when they haven't been microfilmed or you can't go to the courthouse yourself. When you write to a county clerk to request records, be specific. After all, the clerk is busy, and responding to letters from genealogists usually isn't high on her list of priorities.

Let's say you want to see if Great-great-grandpa William Shough, who died in 1878, left a will in Orange County, Va. First, identify where to write using The Family Tree Resource Book for Genealogists (Family Tree Books, $29.99), which gives resources and record details for every US county. The Orange County, Va. listing tells you the year probate records begin, what court holds the records and the address for the clerk's office. Then, write a letter with enough information for the clerk to help you, but not so much that she relegates your request to the recycle bin. For example:

     Orange County Clerk
     P.O. Box 230
     Orange, VA 22960

     To Whom it May Concern:

     I am looking for the will of William Shough, who died in your county in 1871. Could you please
     check your index for this (as well as under the spelling Show), and let me know if you have a
     will recorded for him and what the cost would be to obtain a copy of the full record?

     Thank you for your assistance. I am enclosing a self-addressed, stamped envelope for your reply.

     Sincerely,

     (Your Name Here)

Some people prefer to include a check for, say $5 with the self-addressed, stamped envelope, and then mention in the letter that they will send any additional fee. (Even if you include a check, always include that self-addressed, stamped envelope for the clerk's convenience.) In my experience, either way works fine.

Keep in mind that most clerks will search only for what you specifically ask. Although William Shough died in 1878, his will might have been recorded several years later. To be safe, you might want to give a five- to 10-year search span. Likewise, the clerk probably won't check under different spellings, so include a couple of variations.

Your day in court

Though you'll find many courthouse and town records on microfilm, not all records have been preserved this way. Sooner or later, you'll likely have to go to the courthouse yourself. And there's nothing like the smell of musty records, the feel of heavy deed books or the look on the clerk's face when you say you're looking for your ancestors.

In some courthouses, you'll be allowed to search the indexes and records yourself; in others, a clerk will do it for you. Some will let you view only microfilmed records because the originals have been transferred to the state archives or an off-site storage facility. If the courthouse or town hall has off-site storage, you might have to wait a day or two for the records to be delivered.

It's always a good idea to write or call the courthouse prior to your visit to see what hours it's open and whether it will be closed for any special reason, such as a state holiday. Other questions to ask:

  • Do you have a photocopier for public use? How much do copies cost?
  • Can I make change there, or should I bring coins?
  • How much does it cost to get a certified and noncertified copy of a record?
  • Where's the nearest place to eat? To park?
  • Is the building handicapped-accessible?
  • Can researchers take in briefcases?
  • Are laptop computers allowed?
  • Do I need to see a particular person about looking at a certain record?
  • Does the office close for lunch?
  • Are any records stored elsewhere, and how can I get access to them?
  • Do you have a pamphlet outlining the repository's holdings?

When you get to the courthouse, don't expect clerks to act as your personal research assistants. They usually don't share your enthusiasm for family history, and assisting genealogists isn't their primary duty. When asking for help, it's best not to go into detail about your research. Give them only enough information to help you find what you're looking for. Be as pleasant and friendly as possible, even though the person behind the counter might not be. Remember: The clerk has what you want—the records.

Some researchers go the extra mile for a particularly helpful clerk. They'll send a thank-you note, candy and even flowers, and mention their visit in some way so the clerk will remember them—and be even more helpful the next time they visit the courthouse.

More on courthouse records:
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