Courthouses hold abundance of family history records

Sept. 22, 2009 at 4:22 a.m.

Did you know a treasure of genealogical information awaits you in county courthouses? After completing basic pedigree charts and family group sheets, genealogists and family historians need to travel to the county or parish where their forebears resided and visit the courthouse.

These legal storehouses contain the chronicles of our times and those who came before us. The trip will be an adventure into ancestral homelands and a glimpse of their lives as they lived, celebrated life, and made possible the opportunity for their descendents to carry forth their family name.

No matter where you travel, north, south, east or west, the scene will be similar - a town square, locals sitting on park benches under huge shade trees discussing world problems and reminiscing about how things used to be. Somewhere on the square will be a marble or bronze statue commemorating the county's war casualties.

The courthouse architecture will range from small modest buildings to large modern structures with walls of shining glass or perhaps preserved historical structures similar to the newly refurbished Victoria and Goliad County Courthouses.

As you walk up the steps, imagine your ancestors entering that same building and signing their names on records that may be the key that unlocks the answers to many of your genealogical questions.

You may find yourself in dusty basements opening books and packets stored away for years. At first thought this sounds rather dull and boring but remember, your ancestors were not only alive and well; they were involved in activities that required them to appear at the courthouse to file claims, record deeds, declare naturalization intents, register livestock brands, settle equity cases, gain licenses, serve on juries, file lawsuits, probate wills, pay taxes, hold elections, contract marriages and divorces, and tend to civil and criminal matters.

The benefits of court records for family historians are considerable. In some cases if the matter is contested, it is not unusual to involve between 75 and 100 people, all of whom are named in the court action.

First, check the Probate Court Index and Records. These will include all types of the above mentioned records your ancestors may have created during their lifetime and the distribution of their belongings following their death if they left a will. Also, the records may include some minor criminal offenses and decisions of the court. Probate Court records will be varied and surely worth your while to search.

Next, move to the Chancery Court records. These are cases decided on the basis of equity and fairness as opposed to strict rules of common law cases. Chancery cases are especially useful when researching local history, genealogical information, and land or estate divisions. They are a valuable source of local, state, social, and legal history and offer a unique understanding of the locality's history. Often these cases contain correspondence; property lists; lists of heirs; vital statistics; and many other records.

If your ancestor died intestate (without a will), Chancery Court cases will offer a division of the estate. They also include divorces; settlement of dissolved business partnerships; and resolutions of land disputes.

One of the first questions asked is, "Do I have to go personally to the courthouse?" The answer is yes and no. We are fortunate that many of the court records have been microfilmed by the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and are now being digitized and placed online as microfilm is slowly being phased out of the technology realm. Filmed records are available in the Family History Library and in Family History Centers throughout the world. However, these records are only a foundation and do not include all records found in the local courthouses of your ancestors.

When you visit a courthouse, you may find "loose" papers and packets waiting to be filed, largely unfilmed, and often stored in tin boxes and relegated to nooks and crannies as courthouse space became scare.

An important rule to remember when searching courthouse records is: Be nice. The courthouse clerk who holds your great grandfather's records needs to become your next best friend. It is also nice to take him or her homemade brownies. Happy researching.

Send e-mail genealogy queries to VCGS members will research queries requiring extensive study.



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