Have you ventured into the waters of county court records yet? Everyone who reads this blog regularly knows I am a big fan of court records. Today, I’d like to walk you through the kinds of things you can find in county court records.
As I’ve mentioned before, court records are an intermediate/advanced resource—I wouldn’t recommend them for beginners. Save them for later. Court records can be complex because (1) there are separate state and federal systems, (2) courts in each state often have different names (3) courts exist in a hierarchy, and (4) the names of various courts have changed over time. And, if that’s not bad enough, (5) court records exist in different formats, like dockets, minutes and loose papers. Yikes.
For example, here’s a (current day) 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:
As you can see described inside the boxes, each different court hears specific types of cases (its “jurisdiction”).
When I say “County Court,” I am referring the lowest court in a state’s court hierarchy—the one in which most citizens would first file a cause of action. But beware—that court may not be named “County Court.”
Step number one would be to find out what the County Court was named in your state of research for the period of time you are researching. To do that, you’ll need to find a history of the court system in that state. 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, which is available for viewing on Ancestry. Here is an example of court history in Tennessee from the state archives, and there is a discussion of North Carolina court history at FamilySearch’s Wiki.
The Tennessee link tells me that after 1834, the lowest court in Tennessee was in fact called the “County Court.” (In North Carolina, by comparison, the lowest court was called the “Court of Common Pleas and Quarter Sessions”). If that were my research state, Step two would be to find out where you can access the records–it may be the local courthouse, the state archives, or maybe you can order microfilm from the Family History Library containing those records. Remember in all cases, to call first to find out what is available and what restrictions may be in place, if any. You probably won’t be among the lucky to find county court minutes online, like the ones transcribed online for Tyler County, TX, the images at Southhampton County, Va and the court order books for Amelia County, VA. But you never know unless you look. Genealogists are a generous people.
I’m going to show examples from County Court Minutes–these are the (usually) 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.
The County Court was the place where a hodge podge of information was recorded, and what I enjoy most about these records is that you really get a good picture of the town; the prominent people, the paupers, the merchants and doctors, the lawyers, etc. Exact contents of each county court’s records will vary by state and time period, but here’s a list of things routinely recorded at the County Court:
- appointment of road crews to maintain roads (road “overseers”)
- appointment of tax collectors, sheriffs, constables and jurists
- appointment of men to work on slave patrols
- appointment of an estate administrator or executor
- proving of wills and deeds
- appointment of men to appraise an estate
- providing a widow provisions or her dower after the death of her husband
- appointment of guardians for orphans
- payments to jailers for keeping runaway slaves and other functions
- payments to tax collectors and road surveyors
- 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 being released from paying taxes because of age
- “illegitimate” children, often called “baseborn,” are usually apprenticed out, parents usually named (but remember, no DNA testing back then):
- civil court cases, usually name claimant/defendant, jurors and outcome of case
There’s a very good chance that your ancestor shows up somewhere in these records. Of special interest to those researching African-American families is that free blacks are often found in these records, as in many places they had to register with the court as a free person:
I found mention of my 4th great-grandmother, Margaret Barnes, a free black in Hardin County, TN, in an 1838 entry in the county court minutes, describing how, at about the age of 12 she was taken for her previous “owner” for cruelty and “sold” to another. You may be able to find the name of the person who manumitted (freed) your ancestor or the name of a white person in the community who is vouching for their free status. This is one of the first types of records I suggest for those who have freed black ancestors, and are trying to discover who may have freed the individual (of course, they could have been born free.) Slaves charged with crimes are also mentioned in these records:
So take a walk through your county court records and let me know some of the interesting things you find there.
-Keep in mind that court minutes are dated: the date might be on the top of page 215, for example, and the minutes for that day’s activities might run through page 225. Be sure that when you find an entry of interest, you *go back* until you find the exact date that it was recorded, which may be several pages back. How do I know this? I had to go back several times when I did not copy this information, but it’s crucial for a proper source citation.
-The indexes are not always complete. So, if you really want to be sure someone in particular is not mentioned, you may want to read through each page for a span of time. And—sometimes the index is located in the back of the book. I found that out the hard way too;)
–In the case of counties with burned land records, court minutes, if they survive, can be used to show deed transactions and probate transactions, although they don’t include the details.
–Don’t forget there are plenty of published indexes and abstracts to court records, like the one below. See if any exist for your locality, but 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”-be sure to read through all of the sections.