Inside Sources: Letter of the Law

By Sharon DeBartolo Carmack Premium

When you can’t go to the courthouse yourself and the records aren’t on microfilm, it’s time to sit down and compose a good old-fashioned letter. Be specific when writing to a county clerk to request records. After all, the clerk is busy, and responding to genealogists’ letters 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), which gives resources and record details for every US county. The Orange County, Va., listing tells you the year probate records begin, the court that 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
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 1878. 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.


(Your Name Here)

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

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

You can make the clerk’s job easier if you’ve already done some of the legwork. Say you’ve found the location of your ancestor’s file in microfilmed courthouse-record indexes at your Family History Center, but you don’t have access to the records themselves. Don’t force the clerk to duplicate your efforts — include the volume and page number from the index in your written request.

From the September 2005 Family Tree Sourcebook