Thursday, September 19, 2013

"What files can be found at the court house?"

Like most of you, I subscribe to a variety of genealogical maillists, forums, blogs, Faceboook pages, and Twitter feeds. The posts, articles, status reports and tweets from these are often a good jumping off point for considering our own research. For example, a recent post that asked "What files can be found at the court house?" Isn't that a fantastic question?!

Probably the first files people think of searching for at a courthouse are wills. A good choice for genealogists - from a will we might find when the person died (it will almost certainly narrow down the time period), the will might name relatives, close and more distant, we might find out about the persons possessions or we might find out that there is no will at all.

Beyond the will, we would hope to find the entire probate packet: estate inventories, administrative accounts, final distributions. Sometimes these are more informative than the will itself and, an often overlooked point, can exist even if your ancestor did not leave a will.

Before we go any further, it should be noted that all courthouses are different. Some house their records on site, others off site but still accessible via the courthouse, others still have the older records in state archives or libraries. It is best to find out about the specific courthouse and its policies before planning a research trip, but knowing what they might have and at some time most likely did have, will help to ensure valuable sources are not overlooked.

We all know that deeds are used to transfer real property so we might expect to find out when our ancestors bought and sold specific parcels of land, but land transactions can be complicated with several owners and those can solve some complicated family relationships!

Guardianship accounts often lead to more questions than answers; why now? Who are these people who are appointed guardians and why did each child select a different guardian? The answers you might find easily are when the child came of age and their mother's maiden name, particularly if the inheritance is from a grandparent.

All this and we have barely scratched the surface. Tax lists, naturalization records, criminal records (you never know), marriage and divorce records, pre-nuptial agreements (not a modern invention), apprenticeships, paupers and the indigent, freedom certificates, and more.

It's impossible to cover all of these records in detail in one blog post, so if you can't wait until I delve into details and actual examples you might be interested in Christine Rose's fantastic book: Courthouse Research for Family Historians: Your Guide to Genealogical Treasures