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…