U.S. courts are either federal or state. Federal courts have little value for genealogical researchers who look more to the county courts of each state. Court records are generally of two kinds, civil and criminal. Genealogy research deals primarily with the civil records, though many researchers may have to delve into criminal records as well. Court records are unbelievably extensive, providing a treasure trove of information. For more extensive explanations of the court system and its records see the items listed in the Guidebooks below.
Court records are among the more difficult records to research and as usual, the information in a court record varies from one file to another, from one part of the country to another, and from one time to another. Few court records have been indexed beyond those indexes or dockets produced by the court itself. Most of the older records generally are stored elsewhere than the court and may be difficult to locate or retrieve.
A variety of court records were generated, such as divorces, citizenship, adoption, probate, land, taxes, and a myriad of legal disputes. A surprising number of our ancestors were involved in court actions of one nature or another.
The two most commonly used court records are listed below.
While most of our ancestors were "simple farmers", they generally owned the land. They worked hard to obtain and maintain that land and it was important to them that it be passed on to those that they chose. Early wills were made primarily for this purpose, rather than the disposition of other forms of wealth. Families of the early years were often large and wills also provided for a fair dispersion of land and goods. Courts often stepped in to provide guardianship for under age children and other purposes when individuals died without leaving a will. With or without a will, an inventory of the land and possessions was often required by state regulations.
You will generally find wills filed in county level courts. Check state archives and historical societies for earlier cases.
Whether the transfer of land was between the government and an individual or between individuals, papers generated by that transfer were filed in the local county courts. See Land Records for more information.
There are three ways to research court records :
Go to the actual county courthouse. Most courts' staff will not do detailed searching for researchers. Call ahead to determine where the records you are seeking are located and how to access them.
Use microfilm. The Genealogical Society of Utah has filmed many court records for counties within the United States, but be aware that only a small portion of the records for any county have been filmed. These microfilms are available for loan through interlibrary loan.
Use published records. Some court records have been transcribed and published, but again, be careful; most of these are abstracts or extractions, not the complete court transcript. You will still need to see the original record.
Ancestry's Red Book: American States, County and Town Source, 2004. R GEN 979.1072 ANCESTR. Kept on the Reference Shelf in the Genealogy Area. This book gives sources for vital, census, land, probate, court, tax, cemetery, church, military and historical records for each state.
Genealogist's Address Book, by Elizabeth Bentley, 2005. R GEN 929.1025 BENTLEY. A very handy source, this book lists archives, historical societies, libraries, research centers, genealogical societies from general to specialized, government agencies, and sources of vital records.
Handybook for Genealogists, by George Everton, 2006. R GEN 929.1072 HANDYBO. Kept on the Reference Shelf in the Genealogy Area. This book lists sources for many types of records by state.
The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy, by Val D. Greenwood, 2000. R GEN 929.1072 GREENWO 2000.