I’m pretty excited about our new Mastering Genealogy Research in Court Records course from Family Tree University. I’ve found this to be one of the most intimidating areas of genealogy research, but also one of the most rewarding—my court records finds have included an ancestral divorce filing in Texas and a revealing divorce case in Kentucky.
Mastering Genealogy Research in Court Records instructor Sunny Jane Morton shared these tips for a productive visit to the courthouse (and why you might not need to make a special trip to the courthouse, after all). The first session of this class starts April 8, and if you want to register, you can use code FTU0413 to save 20%.
- If you’re traveling to a courthouse or another repository to research county-level records, download and fill out a Research Repository Checklist. It’ll help you plan your visit, bring appropriate materials and leave extra stuff behind. Bring this checklist with you to the courthouse, along with a County Research Resources worksheet (available to course participants) listing which office has which types of records and what records you’re looking for.
- Arrive as early as possible in the workday. You never know how much time your research will take.
- Dress professionally but in comfortable, washable clothes. You may be on your feet a lot of the day in tight, hard-to-reach or dusty spaces. Yet, you’ll get the respect you deserve as a researcher when you look presentable.
- Carry a minimum of materials with you. There probably won’t be a secure place to set up a laptop computer or table space where you can spread out your notes.
- Confirm copying policies ahead of time. You may be permitted to use a wand scanner or the digital camera on your phone, or you may have to buy a copy card. Some places permit only taking notes.
- When you need to ask the staff a question, think of the most direct way to ask. Don’t share your family history. Say, “Where would I look for an index to probates or intestate proceedings for 1912?”, not “My great-grandfather died in 1912 in Chester Township and I think my great-grandmother was the executor of the estate….”
- Be observant. In addition to the records you came for, keep an eye out for clues to other court records about your family.
- Be thorough. If you don’t find what you expect to, ask a clerk a specific question. “Where else other than deed books might I find someone disposing of land between 1843 and 1846?” You might be shown a separate book of sheriff’s sales if your ancestor fell behind on taxes.
- If you can’t find what you’re looking for, ask politely whether someone in the county offices has a lot of experience with the historical records. If that person is available, he or she may be able to tell you whether an ancestor could have married by banns, or how likely it was that African-Americans would’ve had their deaths reported or estates filed during the Jim Crow years.
- Finally, not every court record requires a trip to the courthouse. You might discover that records you need are microfilmed or digitized at the state archives or FamilySearch.org. In some cases, a combination of online research, microfilm rental and requesting copies from the courthouse will suffice.