Genealogy Research at the Courthouse: When Your Ancestor’s Old Record is Missing

Genealogy Research at the Courthouse: When Your Ancestor’s Old Record is Missing

So you send a request for your ancestor's divorce or deed or criminal trial or other old record to the courthouse that should have it—or you go to that courthouse—and the record isn't there. This happened to me when I requested case records of my great-grandfather's 1913 trial for...

So you send a request for your ancestor’s divorce or deed or criminal trial or other old record to the courthouse that should have it—or you go to that courthouse—and the record isn’t there.

This happened to me when I requested case records of my great-grandfather’s 1913 trial for bootlegging in Bowie, Texas, a dry county at the time. I didn’t have a volume and page number, but I knew details including the county and the date of conviction. I laid it all out as succinctly as possible in my request, added that I’d pay any fees, and sent it off to the clerk (whose name and address I found on the county court’s website).

A few weeks later, my letter came back with a note that said “searched, record not found.” When this happens, it’s possible the information in the request was incorrect or incomplete, that the record was misfiled or filed elsewhere, or that it no longer exists.

In addition to explaining what types of court records exist and helping you find your ancestor’s court records, our Nov. 20 Courthouse Research Crash Course webinar will address what to do when records are missing. Here are some of the options I’ve tried:

  • Double-check your information: Were the names in your request spelled correctly? Did you give a woman’s maiden name when the record should be under her married name? Did you transpose numbers in the date? If so, correct your request and resubmit it.
  • Find the volume and page number where the record is located: Some local genealogical societies have published indexes to court records. Otherwise, check the FamilySearch online catalog for microfilmed indexes: Run a Place search on the county or town and click the court records heading, then browse for index reels covering the right time period. Rent the film to view at your local FamilySearch Center (or, if the records are digitized online, you’ll see a link to the collection at FamilySearch.org).

    Court records indexes are usually handwritten and arranged by the first letter of the last name. Within each section, names may be partially or not at all alphabetized, so check the entire section.

  • Check the microfilmed records: Once you have a volume and page number, you could add it to your request, or you could see whether FamilySearch has microfilmed or digitized the records you need.

    At the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, I searched the microfilmed index and court records for Bowie County. I could see why the clerk didn’t find the records: The volume and page number the index gave for my great-grandfather’s case corresponded with records from years before he was in the county. I also checked microfilmed records for the time his trial took place. Nothing. I noted from the index that his trial was one of a batch of consecutively numbered bootlegging cases, all of which seemed to be missing.

  • Look for courthouse disasters: Local research guides and genealogical societies also can tell you if a fire or other disaster destroyed records. If so, find out exactly which records were involved—some may have survived. Also look for reconstructed records and other substitute sources. (Find our guide to researching around record disasters in Family Tree Shop.)
  • Check local research guides: It’s possible the records were misplaced or filed elsewhere. After all, we’re talking about an entire county’s worth of paperwork in a pre-computer era. Some time after my microfilm search, I found newspaper articles mentioning my ancestor’s trial, and how a special court district was set up to handle the glut of bootlegging cases. I wonder if those records were kept elsewhere? Local research guides and societies might help in figuring out the answer.

    I could resubmit a more-detailed request, in the hopes a different clerk would know where to look. One thing to remember, though, is that a clerk won’t be as highly invested in my genealogy search as I am, and regular duties would likely take precedence over my request.

    I would love to go to the courthouse to search the records myself (or I could hire someone if I had the budget for it). Not all courthouses let researchers access the original records, so if it’s an option you’re considering, call first.

Our Courthouse Research Crash Course webinar, presented by Family Tree Magazine contributing editor Sunny Jane Morton, is Thursday, Nov. 20, at 7 p.m. ET. Everyone who registers will receive a PDF of the presentation slides, as well as access to view the webinar again as often as desired.

See what you’ll learn in the Courthouse Research Crash Course webinar and get registered at Family Tree Shop.

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  1. Hello, all, I’m sharing additional tips from blog reader Margaret Owen Thorpe of Saint Paul, MN:

    I’d add that folks should check the state library or state archives, as many states required that counties send the records to the "capitol" for safekeeping. In several instances, this turned out to be a bad idea – notably in Virginia where the Confederacy set fire to the capital (Richmond) as it retreated. South Carolina’s records were also lost to fire during "The War".

    It seems it took our ancestors a long time to figure out that storing the valuable records in wooden buildings was a bad idea. If "The War" didn’t get the records, something or somebody else did. Couldn’t find any early records for New Kent County Virginia, so I asked the archivist at Library of Virginia. Seems there was a fellow in the late 1700s who didn’t want to go to trial. So he figured that, if he burned down the courthouse, there’d be no trial.

    As an unnecessary side note, the Department of Archives and History in Alabama was founded by Thomas McAdory Owen, who is some kind of great-grand cousin of mine, a time or two removed. Guess the fascination with old records must be far up our family tree!