Challenging the Courthouse
by Ruby Coleman
Records in courthouse jurisdictions are of prime importance to the genealogist. For the most part, they house public records, but those records were not created with the genealogist in mind. It is important to have a basic knowledge of what records are kept in courthouses, and the specific laws or history of the creation of those records.
Courthouse records can be utilized by personal research or by asking or hiring another genealogist to do the search. Writing letters to the courthouse is also a possibility. When searching in person or by letter, know the basics of where records are kept, the time period and type of record you are researching.
Other options include finding abstracted records on Internet. These should all be verified, but are helpful in knowing what information might be located in a specific county courthouse.
Another excellent source for courthouse records is microfilm, specifically that available through the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and its many Family History Centers world-wide. The microfilming process is on-going through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Courthouse records, such as vitals, naturalizations, probate files and land records are targeted for filming.
The best solution is to use all of these types of research. There is nothing better than you, the researcher, doing the research. When visiting a courthouse, go prepared. Ahead of time learn as much as you can about the courthouse. This is possible through a simple, well-stated phone call or by writing to them.
Going "cold" to a courthouse can produce some interesting results. Everything is not as you see it on the shelf or in the file drawer. If you are calling or writing, ask specific questions such as ...
Are any of your records kept off-site? If so, which types (such as
land records, probate records)? What years are kept off-site?
Can they be accessed quickly or should arrangements be made
ahead of time?
Are there specific hours when the courthouse offices are closed
to the general public for research purposes?
Has there been destruction of courthouse records?
Because of work load, there are courthouses that close some offices on a certain day or days of the week. Some also close for local holidays. I have been in small town courthouses in which certain offices are staffed only by one official. If that official is out of the office, temporarily, for several hours, or even a day, the office is closed. Imagine making a trip to find "Closed" on the door! It can happen.
When visiting the courthouse, determine which records are kept in the various offices. Do not be afraid to ask questions, but donŐt burden the already busy clerk or employee with your family history. If you do not see something you want, such as a particular volume or a file, ask for assistance. If itŐs stored in another area, ask permission to use it or to have it retrieved.
To whom are you speaking? Do your letters to courthouses come back as "nothing found?" Consider the possibility that the person answering your questions or your letters is not knowledgeable of the records. Maybe they have worked there only a limited amount of time. Ask for somebody who is well acquainted with the courthouse from top to bottom.
Some courthouses have specific rules for the researcher. Those who came before us and demanded services, annoyed the employees with unending family stories or damaged documents, have left their legacy. The courthouse may have strict guidelines for viewing old documents, file folders and books.
Rules and policy are a good thing, but it is best if you know ahead of time what to expect. I have known courthouses to not admit genealogists into their files and storage areas unless accompanied by a member of a local genealogy society. In some courthouses, researchers are limited to the hours they can research.
Sometimes it is much easier to view microfilm of courthouse records, using facilities such as a Family History Center. This can be done at your time and expense. However, do not assume that every book or file has been microfilmed. Usually indexes are filmed and in many cases the actual document books. There may be loose files that were never discovered. Old bound volumes or boxes of records are easily stashed in corners, basements and vaults.
Genealogical web pages on Internet often contain information about the hours or record offices within courthouses. Volunteers have placed databases of information on web pages, such as marriages. You have no way of knowing if the volunteer interpreted the handwriting correctly. Have dates been transposed? Use these web pages as a guide to further research.
Get ready to challenge yourself in locating documents that contain a world of information about your ancestors. At the same time, challenge the courthouse employees to locate the records. Don't be pushy, but be persistent. Even if your research produces limited clues, that is positive progress toward the end result.
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