The Courthouse has been the center of record keeping for counties in the United States for a long time. Only the methods of recording and the distribution of the information collected at the Courthouse has changed.
In the 1970s my father's quest for family history lead him to many courthouses in a couple northern counties in Indiana. It was part of a trip over a thousand miles away from home. He knew where his father and grandfather were born and had lived. And the courthouse was the only place where he could go to find his ancestor's records which would help in discovering more about his great-great grandfather and other relatives.
Thirty years later, my father passed away and I picked up the torch to find out about the family, and I never had to visit a single courthouse. People I did not know had transcribed all the records from the courthouse and put the data online for me to find. I also wrote to courthouse clerks or to the local genealogical society staff, and with a few bucks, had the data mailed to me.
Our ancestors had a greater connection to the nearest county seat than perhaps do people today. This is due to a heavier reliance on the use of mail and computers to do our business. There are a lot more middlemen providing filing services and sending copies to the courthouse today. But, when old Jeb in the early 1800s arrived from the home land, he had to fill out naturalization forms and make his ‘X' on the signatory line. When he purchased a piece of bottom land, he walked, rode a horse, or got the wagon out and made a trip to the county courthouse to file his claim to his property. His payment of taxes were periodically reported. When Jeb had a squabble with his neighbor over which cows were his, the court records were filed. When old Doc Wilson delivered Jeb's oldest son, he had to fill out a birth certificate. When Jeb's wife wanted to take in her parentless niece, they had to fill out guardianship papers. When Jeb's oldest found his first wife had left him, he had to file divorce papers, and when Jeb finally died after being in the county for 50 years, it was a good thing he had filled out a will and, of course, his son had to wait for the probate records to be approved before he could take over the farm.
Each time a family member experienced a significant change in his or her life, they had to protect such a change with documentation. These documentations of the comings and goings of a family were stored in the courthouse.
Be aware, that like any other human activity, courthouse documents can have errors in them. My great-great grandfather, Adam Smith, was shown in one of his daughter's marriage certificates to have been born in Pennsylvania instead of Ohio. Sometimes Jeb might of went to a neighboring county to file. In some ever-changing state boundaries, the county lines have changed several times. Find an early map of the area to ensure just what jurisdiction Jeb was in at the time he filed, and what counties surrounded him. You can often locate indexes or lists of relatives doing business with courthouses for various purposes that geographically surrounded a targeted individual. Most often such a search of indexes and lists of marriages, wills, etc. from adjoining counties will not be a waste of time. Families generally spread outward from the original homestead as later generations looked for new spaces of their own.
Some states like to consolidate and transfer records from counties to state archives. That is where you might discover copies, if the local county has cleaned house, or when a has courthouse burned. Most genealogical societies or public libraries have also copied and organized much of the local data and can guide you as to where certain records can be found. Genealogical societies often make a portion of their revenue from selling books which hold a compilation or indexes of such documents. They often furnish the file system identification number which will help in getting a copy of the original document. A search of the Internet using the county name should produce a listing of the courthouse, libraries, and societies, along with links to the websites and contact information. Often run by volunteers, such organizations provide the back bone of support for the researchers, so treat them with curtousy and respect.
My trip to the Courthouse
I decided I should travel to my local courthouse and get the low down on what documents, policies, and access is currently available to the general public. Every courthouse has rules, some less strict than others. I visited the most central courthouse in Washington State, the Kittitas County Courthouse, located in Ellensburg. Ellensburg is a city of less than 40,000 people. Both larger and smaller populated cities may have some differences in the storage and dissemination of data.
The clerk was quite helpful and referred to the collection available as "Everything dealing with dirt since the late 1800s." As far as access, everything they had fell under the title of a public record and, thus, was part of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). See http://www.justice.gov/oip/index for more details about this law. There are many descriptions on the web which can summarize or communicate FOIA to the average Joe.
Some records such as wills, guardianship papers, divorces decrees, deeds, and transcripts of court cases are found under the jurisdiction of the Superior Court. I'll leave that for another trip. Some items like IRS-cloaked records, passports, DD-214, or military discharge papers, and naturalization records were, by law, not available. The Public Health department since 1932 was in charge of the filing of the birth and death certificates.
I was lead into their archives, a room about 20 x 10 feet where I had access to many exotic and interesting documents concerning, brand records, election records, chattel leans (used when ranchers and farmers had livestock as collateral on loans) , mining claims, tract indexes, land registrations, world war compensation certificates, marriage licenses, leases, town plats, mortgages, voting records, city directories, and county auditor records (tax records).
The records were available in various methods of viewing, including film or fiche projectors, big old books, and digital databases. Some data on microfiche were transcripts of judgements, patents, deeds, and marriage licenses.
It was quite worth while just to find out what they had and to discover some other sources available to the genealogical researcher which are not usually mentioned. I think everyone should make a trip to your nearest courthouse and discover what resources are available.