Get Thee to the Courthouse – Why Visiting in Person is Still Necessary

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

I think that we genealogists may be in danger of falling victim to the need for instant satisfaction. The ability to look at records on Ancestry or FamilySearch, or any number of online resources, is seductive. We like the fact that we don’t have to leave the comfort of our own homes – or at least, don’t have to go further than our local library – to do our research. The plethora of materials accessible with ease saves us a great deal of time and effort – and for those of us with asthmatic tendencies — prevents exposure to moldy and musty materials. What could be wrong with this image, you might ask? First, the majority of courthouse records are not available online at this time, although some jurisdictions are more open to digital access than others. Second, in my judgment, when we rely too heavily on easy online access, we risk distancing ourselves from the records themselves, depriving ourselves of a more intimate understanding of their content, organization, and relationship with other records in the same geographical area. What is my solution? Read on…

When at all possible, visit a courthouse in person. If distance prohibits such onsite research, consult microfilm copies of the records. Here are some strategies:

  1. First plan your research trip well. Locate current information about location and hours, including holidays. Learn the rules governing scanning (Flip-Pal), taking photographs, or photocopying records. Rules concerning these activities will vary courthouse to courthouse. Some allow personal scanners, some don’t; some allow you to take photographs, but not photocopy; some allow you to photocopy, but nothing else. Some will allow you to photocopy any book that can be taken apart (ah, those lovely steel rods), some don’t care. Some will allow you to make your own photocopies; some require you to submit a request. In addition, determine the cost of copies. In my experience, the cost can range from fifty cents to one dollar per page. Then there are some curious rules which depend upon the individual county clerk! In Amherst County, Virginia, you must request a specific chancery case file in advance, requiring, then, at least two trips as you probably only identified the case during your first trip. Even though I live only an hour or so away from that courthouse, it is an annoying rule. At the Southampton County, Virginia, courthouse several years ago, when you had identified several record books from which you needed copies, you could not stack them on top of one another. Staff at the Goochland County, Virginia, courthouse have apparently discovered that their photocopy revenue was decreasing as more individuals began using personal cameras and scanners. This courthouse now charges fifty cents per copy no matter what method you use to make your copy – yes, that’s right, even if you take a picture with your own camera!
  2. Identify records that are unavailable online as part of your research plan; do not spend your time looking at material that you can view effectively online. Consider online records for Albemarle County, Virginia. A quick card catalog keyword search for “Albemarle” in Ancestry identifies only twelve entries, only six of which pertain to Albemarle County in Virginia. More importantly, none of the entries provide access to a digitized image of an original record. While Virginia Births 1886-89 and 1890-96, and Virginia Marriages, 1851-1929 may be helpful in your research, they are abstracts only. A record search in FamilySearch, filtered by Virginia as a geographical location, identifies fourteen collections, but none specifically for Albemarle County (the filter is unavailable below the state level). Three entries, Virginia Births and Christenings (1853-1917), Virginia Marriages (1785-1940), and Virginia Deaths and Burials (1853-1912) do contain Albemarle records (32,833 births and christenings, 185 marriages, 8,149 deaths and burials, respectively), but if you read the collection description carefully, you will discover that all three point to the same database which does not contain images of original records. The Library of Virginia’s A Preliminary Guide to Pre-1904 County Records in the Virginia State Library and Archives, however, indicates that original Albemarle records are available for several courts (Circuit, County, District, Superior Court of Law, Circuit Superior Court of Law and Chancery, etc.), election records, fiduciary records, registrations of free Negroes, land records, marriage records and vital statistics, military and pension records, road and bridge records, tax and fiscal records, township records, wills, sheriff receipt books, etc. What a difference!
  3. Once onsite, visually browse the entire record room collection before you start your research. When I visit a courthouse that is new to me, I always walk the shelves in order to understand what records are available for what years; what records have indices (while deeds and wills are usually indexed, order or minute books may not be); what titles are used for specific record groups (for example, Nelson County, Virginia, calls all non-chancery courts cases “Law Causes”); and understand their arrangement. (I once struggled to locate deeds in the Frederick County, Maryland, courthouse as the record book titles seemed to have no understandable arrangement – turned out that they were arranged by the initials of the county clerk, making chronological browsing of the shelf impossible unless you knew the sequence of clerks.) Be sure to ask the clerk what records may be accessible on request, but are located in the vault; or what records have been transferred to a state archive or library. Such browsing can also locate research gems such as the Surveyor’s Books (spanning the years 1750 through 1853) that I found while browsing the shelves in the Albemarle County courthouse. Many of the early surveys were done by Joshua Fry, who, with Peter Jefferson, is responsible for the well-known 1751map entitled A Map of the Most Inhabited Part of Virginia containing the Whole Province of Maryland with Part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina. Early surveyor’s books are not commonplace in courthouse collections and can prove invaluable in solving research problems.
  4. Read the source that is as close to the original record as possible and read it in context. All of us know that as information from an original record is transcribed, abstracted, or otherwise interpreted, the possibilities for error increase exponentially. In addition, available online indexing, although in some cases the only indexing that exists, can be vexing at best and misleading at worst. Only by reading the original are you able to analyze the information yourself. Yes, online digitized records provide us with an exact image of the original, but have you ever had difficulty with a clerk’s handwriting? By spending some of your research time reading several records in the same clerk’s hand, you will be able to understand whether that name is “Sand” or “Land,” for example.
  5. If, however, you are unable to visit the courthouse personally, the next best strategy is to look at microfilm of the records pertinent to your research, applying the same techniques as if you had the bound volume or loose paper in front of you. The microfilm may be available through your state archives/library or through the Family History Library. My search for Albemarle County, Virginia, in the Family History Library catalog identified thirty subject categories, including entries for microfilmed courthouse records, many of which were listed in the Library of Virginia’s finding aid mentioned above.

Some resources to assist you in your courthouse research include Christine Rose’s Courthouse Research for Family Historians: Your Guide to Genealogical Treasures (CR Publications, 2004) and Courthouse Indexes Illustrated (CR Publications, 2006), as well as the classic County Courthouse Book by Elizabeth Petty Bentley (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2009), now in its third edition.

Research in a county courthouse is one of my favorite genealogical activities. Step away from that computer and get up close and personal with the records. You’ll be glad you did.

Leave a reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.