Courthouse records can be some of the most revealing sources about your ancestors.
These Fall 2012 Virtual Genealogy Conference tips come from our live chat on Researching Courthouse Records, hosted by the Legal Genealogist Judy G. Russell.
- Types of records you might find at a courthouse include civil and criminal court records, naturally, but also deeds and mortgages, tax lists, county commissioner meeting minutes, vital records, business licenses, voter registrations, cattle brand registrations and more.
- But depending on the place your family lived, older records may have been turned over to a local or state archives, historical society or library. Check in advance before you plan a courthouse trip.
- “Keep in mind is that most of these facilities aren’t really archives,” Russell advised. “They’re working offices trying to keep up with the day-to- day business of government. For the most part, they’re not set up to do a lot of hand-holding.” Find out as much as you can about the records you need—the date, a microfilm number or volume and page number, where they’re located, etc.—before you go.
- More things to know before you go: Check online for courthouse hours, holiday schedules and access information. The court may have limited hours when staff will pull files. Some won’t allow personal scanners or cameras. Different types of records might be in different buildings or rooms. The local genealogy librarian and genealogical society are good sources to ask ahead of time about courthouse quirks.
- See if the office holding the records you need has a busy season. Russell gave this example: “If the records you really want are the tax records, and the tax office’s busy season is October, then going there in October just about guarantees that nobody is going to be available to help you—and they may not even allow record lookups at that time.”
- One chat participant advises you to dress nicely—”so you look like you might be a lawyer or paralegal.” And if you have allergies to dust or mold, bring medication.
- Look for an online or microfilmed index so you have all the volumes and page numbers you need in advance. Also see whether the Family History Library has microfilm of the records you need or even posted them online at FamilySearch.org.
- “Even ‘burned counties’ have some records,” Russell said. “And don’t forget many people re-recorded deeds, etc., after a courthouse fire.”
Ready to head to the courthouse now? Click here to find out about our downloadable guide to researching in courthouse records, available in Family Tree Shop.
Video classes from our Virtual Genealogy Conferences are available in Family Tree Shop. And mark your calendar now for our Winter 2013 Virtual Genealogy Conference, Feb. 22-24.