Have you ventured into the waters of county court records yet? I am a big fan of court records. Today, I’d like to show you what you can find in these records.
As I’ve mentioned before, court records are an intermediate/advanced resource. I wouldn’t recommend them for beginners because of their complexity. It’s better to grow your research skills before venturing into this kind of source.
Why Court Records Can Be Difficult
Court records can be complex for many reasons:
- (1) there are separate state and federal court systems,
- (2) courts in each state often have different names,
- (3) courts exist in a hierarchy,
- (4) the names of various courts have changed over time, and
- (5) court records exist in different formats
Different in Every State
For example, here’s a recent hierarchy of the court in Delaware (courtesy of the National Center for State Courts website):
Take a look at how different the court structure is in Florida:
Each court hears specific kinds of cases (its “jurisdiction”).
Researching County Courts
When I say “County Court,” I am referring the lowest court in a state’s court hierarchy.
These are the courts the one in which most citizens would file a cause of action. But beware—that court may not be named “County Court.”
So first, you’ll need to find out what the County Court was named in your state of research.
Some places to search for this information are: the state archives website, the website for the state’s current-day court website, Google, FamilySearch Wiki, and Ancestry’s Red Book.
For example, here is a discussion of North Carolina court history at FamilySearch’s Wiki. It tells me that after 1834, the lowest court in Tennessee was named the County Court.
In North Carolina, the lowest court was called the Court of Common Pleas and Quarter Sessions.
Next, find out how you can access the records. That may take a trip to the local courthouse or state archives. Remember to call first to find out what is available and what restrictions may be in place.
You never know unless you look. Genealogists are a generous people.
(Update, 2018: Be sure to check all the free images online at familysearch.org)
County Court Minutes are the brief records of everyday business of the local court. Most are indexed, either in the front or back.
But it’s not uncommon to come across some volumes that are not indexed.
What I enjoy most about county court minutes is that you really get a good picture of the town. You’ll know the prominent people, the paupers, the merchants and doctors, the lawyers, and more.
The exact contents of each county court’s records will vary by state and time period. Here’s a list of things often recorded:
- –road crews named to maintain roads (road “overseers”)
- –names of tax collectors, sheriffs, constables and jurists
- –men to work on slave patrols
- –appointments of an estate administrator or executor
- ——proving of wills and deeds
- –men named to appraise an estate
- –providing a widow provisions or her dower after the death of her husband
- –guardians for orphans
- –payments to jailers for keeping runaway slaves and other functions
- –tax collector and road surveyor payments
- –payments for people to help the poor (paupers)
- –petitions for building new roads, bridges or mills
- –licensing of merchants (for taverns, ministers, lawyers, etc.)
- –taxes assessments and payments
- –people released from paying taxes because of age
- –apprenticed “illegitimate” children (parents sometimes named):
- –civil court cases, usually name claimant/defendant, jurors and outcome of case
There’s a good chance that your ancestor shows up somewhere in these records. For those researching African-Americans, free blacks are often found in these records.
They usually had to register with the court as a free person:
My 4th great-grandmother was Margaret Barnes, a free black woman in Hardin County, Tennessee.
I found her in an 1838 entry in the county court minutes. At about the age of 12, she was taken from her previous “owner” for cruelty and “sold” to another.
This is one of the first records I suggest researching for those who have free black ancestors.
These records may uncover who freed them, or they may state that the person was born free.
Take a walk through county court records and let me know what you find. Remember that court minutes are dated, so be sure to find the date of the record which may be on another page. If you don’t record the date and the pages, you can’t write a proper source citation.
Don’t forget there are published indexes and abstracts to court records. See if any exist for your locality. If you find something, be sure to request the original record for review.
Ancestry.com has a nice primer on Court Records from “The Source.” I recommend reading it to learn more about these records.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.