Legal Ease

Legal Ease

Forget your notions of haphazard records and cranky clerks. Researching at your ancestors' hometown courthouse can be a cinch – if you heed these 10 tips for a successful trip.

With the wonders of the Internet, who needs to go to old county courthouses to blow the dust off heavy deeds books and pore over criminal courts records? You do!

Sure, all kinds of Web sites, archives, history centers and libraries have basic census information for your family. And it’s frequently possible to get copies of family and regional histories through interlibrary loan or genealogical and historical societies. But if you want to know all the precise details about the fight over your great-great-grand-mother’s estate, property transactions involving your grandparents and the criminal changes filed against your great-grandfather, it’s worth a trip to the courthouse.

You’re especially likely to end up at the county courthouse if you’re looking for records outside the nation’s largest cities. (Prime exceptions include Connecticut and Rhode Island, whose counties don’t have functioning governments, and Alaska and louisiana, whose “counties” are called boroughs and parishes, respectively.) Counties with populations under 50,000 accounted for nearly 75 percent of all county governments in 1990, according to the National Association of Counties <www.naco.org>, and there’s no reason to think that has changed. Whether you’re headed for the county or city or township courthouse. These tips will help you make the most of the trip.

1. Know where you’re going.

Many of the records you’ll be seeking — private land transactions, court actions, vital records — were filed at the county courthouse. But from state to state, the office that has the records you want doesn’t always have the same name. It’s a pretty safe bet that the recorder of deeds has private land-transfer documents, and that the clerk of courts holds all the information you need on civil and criminal casts. But where you’ll find vital records can vary considerably. Take a look at The Handybook for Genealogists, 10th edition (Everton Publishers), for an exhaustive list of which offices hold which records. The County Courthouse Book by Elizabeth Petty Bentley (Genealogical Publishing Co.) also is valuable. But hasn’t been updated since 1995’s 2nd edition. Ancestry’s Red Book: American State, County & Town Sources (Ancestry) is even mustier, last revised in 1992. Docs anyone in the United States have the same area code today that they did in 1992?

Or save the money and drill down into each state’s county pages at USGenWeb <www.usgenweb.com>. Most of the site’s county pages tell which office is responsible for which records; frequently, they also list the address, copying feel and hours during which genealogists are allowed to do research.

2. Learn the lay of the land.

Even if you’re a genealogy newbie. You’ve probably discovered that counties have been created and have disappeared in virtually every state. Its important to know which county your ancestors lived in when they were selling land or suing their neighbors, and which county is now the administrator for that area. This type of history is important to check before you leave home, even if the ancestors in question never moved an inch after homesteading — the boundaries for the county they lived in may have. Further, while it’s not common, it’s also not unheard of for a piece of property to have straddled a county line; if that’s the case, as long as you’re in the neighborhood, it can’t hurt to check both counties for records involving your ancestors. And boundary changes aren’t just a thing of the past — today, government remains a dynamic, changing force. One current trend is for counties and cities to combine governmental functions. The National Association of Counties says more than 30 such governments exist today. Before you leave home, make sure you know where the record you’re seeking is currently housed.

3. Find out what they have.

It’d be a shame to traipse halfway across the country only to find that 1850 probate record you want is lost in the mists of time because the county in question didn’t star saving documents until 1855. Or that although the records horn 1850 are on file. This is the summer the county is microfilming that decade; as a result, all records are unavailable for the next six months. Or that everything from the period you’re researching was transferred to the state vital records office or to the state archives since the count) Web site was last updated. Call to confirm the records are in fact on promises.

4. Focus your search.

If you’re fortunate enough to have several family lines who lived in a part volar area fur several years, it’s tempting to try to work them all in an afternoon. Don’t! It’s hard enough to pore over land records and estate records and litigation involving one family in a day. Add in a different set of names and a different set of dates at the same time, and you’re going to miss something significant about one or the other. A better strategy is to decide which offices and records you want to check for a specific family Then, when you’re checked off everything OH that family’s list, move on to the next one. For me, approaching it in the opposite way — “I’ll check the land records for all my ancestors in Monroe County” — takes more time, and I almost alway’s miss an interesting record as a result.

5. Time your trip wisely.

Several years ago. My sister, brother and I went to the Giant County, Wis., courthouse as part of a bigger genealogical trip. We checked in advance the years for which records were on file, the office that held out records of interest and its hours. It wasn’t until we got there, however, that we were told genealogists had to register in advance to view records. Worse, only a few (I believe the number was five) researchers were allowed access at any one time, and all those slots were booked for the day. Yes, you would’ve thought the county employee to whom I spoke before the trip would’ve mentioned that detail, but she didn’t. Since then, I’ve always asked if the office has specific restrictions for genealogical research that I need to know before making a trip land frequently, there are). Which brings us to …

6. Be precise.

Like most of the rest of us, many government workers feel they’re overworked and underpaid, and recent budget cuts have made the situation even worse. The people who work in the offices you’ll visit arc kept hopping by elected officials, constituents, lawyers and assorted crazies who come into the office. Be aware that as far as they’re concerned. Family historians frequently fall into the final category. Be as specific as possible with your request: “I’d like a copy for family history purpose of the birth certificate of my father, Bernard Rigney. Who was born in Kennebec on March 28, 1919” will gel a much more pleasant land prompt!; response than “I was hoping to see a list of people born in Lyman County before 1920.”

7. Avoid being a pest.

Do not go back to the person who got the record for you and ask if she thinks the number in that Land record looks more like a one or a seven. Don’t ask why your great grandmother’s name is listed as Melinda Rose o n documents regarding her estate settlement, when everywhere else she’s listed as Melinda Rose. The worker won’t know, and stopping to he polite |or close to it to you about such a question won’t make her move any faster when you ask for your next record. If you want a second opinion, ask a fellow researcher. You’ll almost always find someone else delving into his history at the same table where you’ve been told to sit. If the clerk says she doesn’t have a record, it’s fine to ask her to check a second time. But if it still doesn’t turn up. Consider other possibilities. I once was sure a death record had to be on file — after all, the family had lived in the county for 40 years, and my great-great-grandmother was buried there, so how could she not have died there? A thoughtful county worker suggested I check her estate file — there, I learned she spent the last year of her lite with a daughter more than 300 miles away.

8. Be prepared.

Many offices have very specific requirements as to what a family researcher may take into the records area. Sometimes, you’ll be allowed to rake only pencils and a notepad. Even if you’re told the office doesn’t have such restrictions, it’s best to have a half dozen pencils and the details of what information you are seeking written on a notepad. Don’t count on a convenient hookup for your laptop — or even on being able to use it. Similarly, carry plenty of change for parking. It’s not free at every courthouse, and lots where you can park for the day and pay when you come in or leave aren’t always available. And he prepared to pay in cash or with a personal check for any copying — not every office will take credit cards. While we’re on that topic…

9. Make copies of everything.

Even if you already have a copy from another source. 1) you choose not to make a copy or if copier facilities aren’t available (be prepared, remember?|. Write down every single solitary thing in the record, including misspellings and details that don’t jive with information you already have about the family. My sister and I had viewed one of our lines’ 1880 Hardin county, Iowa, census record at Family History Centers and at a National Archives and Records Administration facility. Every time, we’d read right over the race box, as we were quite sure it said white. But when we visited the Hardin County Courthouse and gave my brother this transcription duty, thinking the two of us would handle other documents. We found out our great-great-grandfather was listed as mulatto. This new information led us on an entirely new direction in our research.

When researching your own family, be sure to read every detail. A criminal filing may turn up a “black sheep” about whom no one in the family ever talks; a probate file may provide information about nieces, nephews and cousins.

10. Take a chance, as long as you’re there.

You may be going to the courthouse to check on your great-grandmother’s death certificate. As long as you’re there, see if there’s an estate folder or probate record on her. Ask the clerk of courts if there’s a surname index for court caves. Check the index of private property transactions to see if she and your great grandfather owned land you know nothing about. Yes, this seems to fly in the face of tip 7. But pointing you in the direction of an index isn’t a major inconvenience for the courthouse workers, even if they may act like it is. After all, it’s not every day (or even every decade, for that matter) that you get to some of the more remote areas where your ancestors lived, and better to know nothing’s on file than to wonder after you get home.

Finally, don’t forget to leave the courthouse occasionally, too. While it’s a thrill to see records that were so important to your family, it’s just as exciting to visit the neighborhoods in which they lived. Leave the dusty files behind for pan of your trip — and experience the lives behind those records.

From Family Tree Magazine‘s November 2003 Trace Your Family History.

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