Using Courthouse Records To Research Your Family History

Finding Information On Criminal and Civil Cases

What Are Courthouse Records?

Courthouse records are any records maintained in the courthouse. Many of them include courthouse proceedings, whether criminal or administrative. Clerks keep a range of different records, including the marriages and mortgages in the county or town in which you live.

What Sort Of Documents Can I Find At the Courthouse?

Here is a list of some of the documents you will likely come across at a courthouse:

  • Adoptions
  • Business and professional licenses
  • Homestead files
  • Coroner’s files 
  • Court proceedings
  • Guardianship papers
  • Commitment hearings
  • Indentures
  • Jury lists
  • Justice of the peace records
  • Land deeds, surveys, and maps
  • Records of livestock brands and marks
  • Mortgages
  • Leases
  • Foreclosures
  • Name changes
  • Naturalizations
  • Orphans records
  • Poorhouse records
  • County farm records
  • Prenups
  • Tax rolls
  • Voter registrations
  • Wills and probate

How Do I Get Started Searching Courthouse Records?

Here is the biggest secret to working with courthouse records: a lot of your research is going to start before you even make it to the courthouse. Some records can be found online, so you should start with a Google search of your local records and see if they are available. 

Some courthouses might require an appointment so be sure you learn the guidelines of what you need beforehand. Their websites are a good place to start, or you can call ahead to confirm a lot of information before you plan your trip.

What Information Do I Need Before I Head To The Courthouse?

Before you make your way to the courthouse, start digging through your own family records. You should prepare names to look up and make lists of which documents to try and find. If you have a goal when you arrive at the courthouse, you are much more likely to be efficient in your research.

What Do I Need To Know Before My Trip To The Courthouse?

Before you head to the courthouse, be sure to call and ask these questions. They will help you have a smooth and productive research trip.

  • What are the hours of the courthouse you intend to visit?
  • What are the boundaries of the county you’re researching, and have they changed historically?
  • What are their visitor and researcher policies? Sometimes, places only allow outsiders to research on certain days and only certain collections are accessible.
  • What are their photocopier policies? Not all places will have photocopiers for public use and if you are doing research you will want to photocopy everything.
  • Can you bring a computer? Not all places will have an area for you to spread out and really get into the mood for doing research. You will likely have a very cramped space to work in and many places won’t let you bring a laptop computer.
  • Do they close for lunch? 
  • Can you bring your own food? 
  • Is there parking? 
  • Is there a dress code? Be sure to dress appropriately when you arrive. You want to be taken seriously, so you don’t want to be dressed too casually. Keep in mind that you will be rummaging through dusty records, so you also don’t want to wear anything that will be hard to clean.

Can I Bring Anything Out Of The Courthouse?

While courthouses are a great place to learn more about your ancestors, you likely won’t be able to bring out any of the materials. You will have to do all of your research while you are there, so be sure you arrive as early as possible to maximize your time.

Familiarize yourself with their photocopier policy. You will want to make scans or photocopies of all of your records if you can.

What Are The Best Practices For Courthouse Research?

If you have prepared properly, you should have a productive day searching through court records. Just remember two things when you are getting ready for your trip:

1. Don’t Show Up Without Your Homework

Courthouses can be busy places, so family historians are not always a welcome distraction. Be sure you have done any research you can at home and call ahead first. You might go all the way to the courthouse only to find that the records you need are inaccessible, or their visitor hours are on another day, or you need an appointment.

2. Don’t Be A Nuisance

The people working at the courthouse are not librarians, so they may not be as well versed in the collections as you are hoping they will be. Remember that a courthouse is a working place, and many people have their own jobs to tend to – it’s not usually their job to direct you to the materials you need. 

If you have specific questions that can be easily answered, go ahead and find a clerk to help you. They may also point you toward the right person to speak to about your query. Either way, be very respectful of their time and try to be as direct and to the point as possible. Be quiet while working and polite to the other researchers and courthouse employees.

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