Wood County Courthouse, West Virginia, Court Records, Chancery Records

Law Causes – Beyond Chancery Suits

Editor’s Note: The following is a lightly revised post originally written by the late Carolyn L. Barkley. We’ve been bringing many of Ms. Barkley’s old posts out of the archives, as her depth of knowledge on the topics she covered is exceptional. We’d like to continue to share her wisdom with all of our current readers. 

The post below discusses court records, including chancery suits, and how these cases can be helpful in your genealogical quest. Two publications are particularly helpful in discovering, understanding and utilizing court records: Elizabeth Petty Bentley, County Courthouse Book, 3rd edition, and Val D. Greenwood, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, 3rd edition. 

Court records are some of the most revealing records in terms of our ancestors’ actions and the community environment in which they lived. It is important to understand that there are several types of court records and that it may be necessary to examine all of them. Further, it is important to know that the names of specific courts differ among states and time periods and that records may not be extant for all time periods.

Regardless of the locality, but depending on the time period and type of court, you will be able to locate the following types of records:

  • the actual workings of the court itself (dockets, minutes, orders, etc.);
  • land transactions (deeds, grants, mortgages, surveys, plats, etc.);
  • probates (wills, estates, administrations, executors, inventories, sales, etc.);
  • vital records (births, marriages, deaths);
  • taxation (payment lists, delinquency lists, etc.);
  • “law causes” (trials, suits, criminal and civil actions, judgments, etc.) and chancery cases (divorces, land divisions, etc.)

It is this last category, law causes and chancery cases, that often contains the most interesting information. Chancery cases are those in which the “equity” or fairness of a suit is decided; law causes are those governed by a clear determination of right or wrong as defined by the law. The term “law causes” (or “common law causes”) is what is used in my local courthouse (Nelson County, Virginia) to refer to all court cases other than chancery. Your courthouse may use a different term. Continue reading…

Courthouse records, courthouse, chancery

Courthouse Records – Why Visiting in Person is Still Necessary

Editor’s Note: The original post, slightly edited and republished below, was written by the late Carolyn L. Barkley and published in 2012. The information she shares on why it is important to visit a courthouse in person, as well as tips for making your research more efficient while you’re there, is no less relevant today than when she wrote this. Please keep in mind that in the last two years some of the information regarding online record availability or pricing may have changed. 

Get thee to the courthouse!

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.

The solution to this online dependency is 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: Continue reading…

chancery records, government collection Library of Virginia

What are Chancery Records and Why Should I Use Them?

When I began my genealogical research many years ago, like many other beginners, I focused on marriage records, birth and death records when they were available, as well as wills. With experience came more knowledge and I began to use deeds and other land records. As I started research in Virginia I attended various workshops and seminars in order to become more knowledgeable about the specific records available in that state. One of my educational goals was to learn about those things called “chancery records” that I kept hearing my colleagues discuss. By doing so, I was able to add depth and detail to my research, learning to piece together information about individuals who might have otherwise gone unknown and their stories untold.

To understand chancery records, a definition of chancery, or chancery courts, is necessary. Not all courts judge cases in the same manner. Some courts decide cases based on the written laws that either specifically allow or specifically proscribe various actions in certain circumstances. There is no latitude for judicial interpretation in these cases; there is no “grey area” as the legal requirements are defined quite clearly. Continue reading…