court record, court record research, genealogy

Learning about family trees through court records

We came across this article, “Learning about family trees through court records,” published in The Daily Nebraskan. It recounts the local Genealogy Over Lunch group’s discussion of utilizing court records for family history research. We have posted several pieces on this blog about the importance of visiting the courthouse in person, as well as the purpose of related chancery records, which can be a fantastic resource.

This recounting of the local genealogy group offers a local narrative of court record’s utility, which we appreciate and would like to share. Please note that the hyperlinks have been added below to assist our readers in learning more about the topic mentioned.

Learning about family trees through court records:

A paper history can be used to track down family ties, even if that paper trail winds through the courts. On March 18 the Genealogy Over Lunch group discussed how ancestral court records could be used to track down a person’s family history. The session was led by Joan Barnes, community engagement librarian, and Tom McFarland, staff development program officer.

Barnes started off the event with a discussion on one of her uncles, a half-Indian who worked as a scout and translator at Fort Beaufort in the 1880s. In summer of 1885, Barnes’ uncle was shot and killed by a fellow officer. While the officer was convicted, he later appealed the court and was found not guilty.

Barnes said she was amazed the court had record on her uncle’s murder, with detailed accounts of each witness’s testimony and deep examination of the crime scene.

“It’s an opportunity for people who are interested in genealogy and family history to get together and talk about different topics,” Barnes said. “Sometimes we help each other break through a mystery, or show off resources that others may not know about.”

McFarland said ancestors can be found in legal documents or court cases concerning written wills. Other court cases may label the defendant or plaintiff’s health at time of the incident, which may help someone find a family history of disease that would have otherwise remained unknown.

While the session focused mainly on the histories of those speaking at the event, audience members were also encouraged to share their own family history as well. If any confusion about research was reached, another participant might give out helpful hints where to look when searching for family histories.

The group discussed many different ways of discovering one’s family history, including court records, Love Library’s digital archive, DNA and various websites such as, the HathiTrust Digital Library and Google Books.

“We, of course, being an academic library, have a lot of historical records and information,” McFarland said. “For instance, one of the things that Jonesy used was the American fur trade records that we had.”

McFarland said he once did a presentation involving a revolutionary soldier, who was not well-known, and was able to find a variety of different sources in the collections.

The Genealogy Over Lunch group meets the third Thursday of each month at Love Library. The library will celebrate Genealogy Day on May 18.

Image credit: Court Record Fragment, 1804, via Library of Congress.

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…