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Meet Me at the Courthouse

Important reminders for courthouse research.


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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
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Beginning genealogists will often shy away from courthouse research for many reasons. They may be intimidated by the legal process or the terms used in documents, they may have difficulty reading old handwriting, or they may have not understand how the documents are indexed and stored. Those genealogists are missing out on a wealth of family information and may miss some very exciting family information in the process.

I recently solved a portion of one of my brick wall mysteries at the courthouse. I instinctively knew that a female ancestor I was studying had to be the daughter of a certain individual, but as yet had no evidence to prove my theory. I knew that if I could find a will that it would very likely give me the information I needed. Off to the courthouse I went. I did not find the will I was searching for, but a check through land records did provide the record of a land deed granted to one of the surviving children of the deceased man, and low-and-behold, it provided the names of all his children and their spouses. Previously, I had not been able to locate any birth, marriage, or death records for this woman nor any birth records of her children. The only way I knew their names was through census records.

In addition to land records and wills, you can glean some very intriguing information at the circuit clerks office by looking through court records. This is really a very under-utilized resource and is open to searching, just like any other type of public record. There are basically two types of court records, civil and criminal. Criminal records deal with some of the less-than-sterling qualities of our ancestors, things for which arrests are usually made. Civil cases usually deal with some type of dissent between two parties such as lawsuits or land disputes. As you can well imagine, these types of records can provide very interesting food for your ancestral histories.

When doing courthouse research there are things that you can do to make it easier. First, practice reading old documents until you become comfortable deciphering the script. When you become stuck on a word compare the letters in that word to the letters in words that you can read easily, until you discover what it says.

Also, become familiar with terms used in the various documents you are studying, or carry a list of terms with you to the courthouse; you will feel much more comfortable with the research if you are not feeling as though you don't have a clue what you are reading. And finally, don't go expecting the staff to do your research for you, they will be happy to point you in the right direction, but you will get the most from your research if you dig into the records yourself. You are the detective and only you will discern what is a clue and what isn't.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2007.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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