Court records are one of the most underutilized genealogical resources
available. There are several reasons for this. One is that court records
are not the easiest records to research (true). Another is that court
records are only relevant for those with wealthy ancestors (false). Nothing
could be further from the truth. Of my ancestors from my great-great-grandparents
and beyond approximately 60 percent of the couples have the husband or
the wife appearing in some type of court action. Sometimes they are the
defendant, sometimes they are the plaintiff, sometimes they are deceased
and there is a argument about their estate. Occasionally, there is even
a suit for divorce!
There's Lots of Information to Find in Court Records
Researchers who take the time to utilize court records may very likely
reap the rewards that such records hold. The amount of information contained
within a court file can vary greatly from one case to another and from
one region of the country to another, but often you will be pleasantly
surprised. Let's look at a few examples.
A 1820s era Maryland court case involving a property line dispute documents
the defendant's 1817 move to Ohio (which I used as "proof" of residence
to join First Families of Ohio) and includes a signed document from the
defendant's parents (including the mother) that promised the defendant
would inherit the land from the parents when they died. The case centered
on an incorrect boundary description, not the title to the property in
question. A detailed plat of the property is included in the packet of
court papers. This was a great find.
In another case that took place in Kentucky in the 1820s, a "potential"
ancestor revealed that he was the father of my forebear, Enoch Tinsley.
A land dispute involving James Tinsley contained a deposition from Enoch
wherein he states that he "rented land from his father, the defendant."
This is the only record available proving this relationship. Another case
for Enoch's father, James Tinsley, centers around the theft and butchering
of James' hogs in the 1820s. Enoch is mentioned in this case as following
the trail of hog's blood in the snow to the barn of a neighbor.
An 1890s case where a widow wished to have her inheritance separated
from her children contains information on the children of the deceased
individual and the widow. The names and dates of birth are given for each
child. Some of the children were born before statewide registration of
vital events and the court document listing this information is the earliest
record of the information available.
Finally, an 1890s foreclosure upon the death of an eighty year old man
lists all his living descendants at the time of the case. The court papers
also include the mailing addresses of all thirty defendants. Many of these
individuals had moved from the area and this case provided new information
regarding their whereabouts.
Different Types of Cases Provide a Variety of Information
While any court case may provide genealogical information, the following
types of cases are most likely to provide details useful to genealogical
While the content varies, divorce records typically provide the date and
place of marriage of the couple. If there are minor children, they may
be named and ages provided. The records may also contain information on
previous residences of the couple. It is also possible that a divorce
action was started and never completed. However, information in the complainant's
complaint may provide information even if the divorce was never completed.
Divorces before 1900 were not as common as they were today, but they were
not unheard of either.
Perhaps there was never a divorce at all. Information in this type of
case may provide similar information as a divorce case. However, if all
the children were adults at the time of the action, they may not even
If for whatever reason the heirs to an estate cannot agree on how the
property can be divided, there might be some type of court action to "partition"
the estate among the heirs. Riley Rampley died in Illinois in 1893 and
there was no probate or estate settlement. Nearly seventeen years later
when his widow wished to sell the property, she initiated a partition
suit in order to clear title to the property. Any dispute over property
should be analyzed further, as property disputes may contain information
about earlier members of the family or owners of the property in question.
While later records may be sealed, older records may be available. In
some cases, a court order may be necessary to access these records. However,
remember that many early adoptions were informal and that no court record
of the adoption may exist.
There was a time in America when women had few legal rights. If the father
died with minor children and the mother survived, a guardianship might
have been filed. Guardianship records may be filed in a separate series
of records, with the probate records, or with other court records. Guardianship
records may provide names of the children or their dates of birth. In
some areas an Orphan's Court may have served a similar purpose. In my
own research an individual was adopted by a family in the 1890s. No formal
adoption proceedings were recorded. However when the child was approximately
seven years old he came into an inheritance from his maternal grandfather.
A guardianship case was filed so the adoptive father could legally receive
the funds for his son. The court records of this guardianship provide
information on the child's mother and referenced a partition suit involving
his biological aunts and uncles that contained more details on the child's
Bastardry and Fornication
While not the topic of polite dinner conversation, these cases were pursued
in some jurisdictions, especially before 1900 (some states still have
laws on the books for these crimes). Records in these cases may provide
the names of children's fathers that appear in no other record and are
especially useful in the era before civil registration of vital records.
There are many other types of cases that might be brought before a court,
all of which have the potential to be genealogically relevant. The amount
of detail in any specific court case can vary, but more complex and more
recent cases are likely to contain more details than simpler and earlier
Cases brought before a court are legal actions. These actions can be
- Civil Actions (private individuals versus private individuals).
- Criminal Actions (basically a violation of state statute or something
that threatens society at large).
- Equity Actions (cases where there may be a more "equitable" solution
outside the letter of the law).
At the county level, these "courts" may all be combined into one court
with one series of records. However in earlier times there might have
been separate courts, with entirely separate sets of records. It may be
that a complete search of court records requires a search of more than
one series of records. See the references at the end of the article for
more complete information.
Physical Structure of Court Records
Whether you use the actual records or microfilm, the research procedure
is similar. Search the plaintiffs' index and defendants' index. There
should be a separate indexing for each, although one physical volume may
contain both indexes. This index should indicate what type of case is
being pursued. The dates the action was started and completed may also
be listed, along with dates of other actions and judgments. Additionally,
there are usually references to various court books (judge's orders, actual
court journals, etc.) and perhaps a reference to a packet or box number
which contains the actual records (subpoenas, affidavits, signed judge's
orders, bill of complaint, defendant's response, etc). In earlier times,
the only record that might be available is the various books that contain
transcriptions of some documents, dates the case was brought before the
court, various court appearances related to the case, and the judge's
Limitations of Court Records
The main limitation of court records centers around their organization.
Most cases are still filed at the county level. Some early cases may be
in a state library or archives. The Family History Library has microfilmed
a significant number of these records. These records, despite the vast
amount of information that they contain, are largely unindexed. While
some pre-Revolution records have been printed with indexes, this is not
the case with the majority of the records.
Generally records have two indexes, an index to plaintiffs (those who
bring the case to court) and an index to defendants (those who are being
brought to court). Indexing systems vary, but generally if there are multiple
plaintiffs or multiple defendants, the case appears in the each index
only once. So, for example,
John SMITH and Henry JONES
Sarah SMITH, Henry JOHNSON, and Alexander CRUZ
is indexed in the plaintiffs' index under "SMITH, John" and in the defendants'
index under "SMITH, Sarah." Even though JONES, JOHNSON, and CRUZ are parties
to the case, their names do not appear in the index. When researching,
if you are uncertain how the records are indexed, find one case and check
for each plaintiff and defendant in the index to see how the case is indexed.
Even if all the plaintiffs and defendants are included in the respective
indexes, there are no indexes to all the witnesses and other individuals
who may be mentioned in a court case. So, given the nature of court record
indexes, it is extremely important to research the complete family.
Getting to the Records
Generally, there are three ways to access court records:
- The actual location. This would be the county courthouse for most
areas of the United States (an significant exception would be those
records filed in the independent cities of Virginia). Many records facilities
do not have the staff to perform detailed research services, so if you
aren't able to visit the facility yourself, you may need to hire a researcher
to search the records for you.
- Microfilm. The Genealogical Society of Utah has filmed court records
for many areas in the United States. Keep in mind that not all court
records may have been filmed for a specific county. For example, the
court record books and order books may have been filmed, but not the
court packets themselves. Look though the Family History Library Card
Catalog, but remember that exhausting the Family History Library's collection
does not mean that all extant records have been accessed. There might
be un-filmed records in the original repository. It may productive to
make photocopies of the appropriate indexes for later research and analysis
- Published records. Some court records have been transcribed and published.
The majority of published records are east of the Mississippi and are
pre-American Revolution. Reference the Family History Library Catalog
and other library catalogs for citations to published court records.
Note that post-1850 court records are largely unpublished, and also
be aware that some published records are abstracts or extractions, not
complete verbatim transcriptions.
Why You Might Want to Search Court Records
- As research progresses to earlier time periods, court records become
less complete and less organized. However, as they are among the earliest
of records, they become even more important.
- If you need to validate that an ancestor was living in a specific
place at a certain time, a court case may allow you to do that because
a residence will usually be given. If your ancestors moved around, check
indexes for the period of several years after they left the area in
case they were sued after they moved. It can happen my ancestor
left Maryland in 1817 and was sued in Maryland in 1823.
- Insanity records can be informative. Cases of this type may be filed
in a separate series of records or interfiled with civil court proceedings,
estate records, or guardianship records. Insanity cases may also be
filed separately. Fully research the case at the county level, as these
records are usually open. State hospital records may be closed (without
a court order) due to confidentiality laws, regardless of how long ago
the individual died. While a state archives may have some records, they
probably are under the same legal guidelines.
- Estate disputes and fights can sometimes provide information on relatives
not contained in the probate file. Possibly taking years to settle,
a case of this type might mention grandchildren or great-grandchildren
of the deceased.
Suggestions for Searching Court Records
- Don't just search the court packets and ignore the court record books.
Make certain you have accessed all the records. Upon occasion, the various
court record books may contain information not mentioned in the packet
of case papers. And if the packet of papers is lost or misfiled, reference
to court order books might be necessary.
- If an ancestor appears in a defendants' or plaintiffs' index more
times than you have time to research, you may wish to focus on cases:
- Involving more than two individuals.
- Where one of the parties is an administrator, executor, or guardian.
- Such as divorce, partitions, bastardry, adultery, etc. that involve
your ancestor and his spouse.
While there are no guarantees, cases such as these have a higher
chance of containing genealogically relevant information, as they
are more likely to center on a conflict involving an inheritance,
ownership of property, marriage dissolution, or children.
In some court cases, the packet of papers may be rather large. While
the conscientious genealogist should search the entire packet, some
items warrant special attention. They are the:
- Petition of plaintiff (or the bill of complaint, plaintiff's declaration,
original bill, plea, etc.). This outlines the plaintiff's case.
In a criminal case the indictment should be referenced.
- Response of the defendant (or the rebuttal, answer, etc.). This
outlines the defendant's position and states why he/she is not at
fault. Not necessarily filed in all cases.
- Statement of findings (or conclusions, Master's Report, summary,
etc.). This summarizes the results of the case and usually summarizes
the information contained in the packet.
- Other intermediate reports and findings may have been issued and
may also help to summarize and understand the case.
For More Information
Court records are a vast resource. This article has only scratched the
surface of court records (and has not covered any appeals courts or naturalization
records). Researchers wishing to learn more about court records should
- The LDS Research Guide for the state being researched.
- The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy, Val D. Greenwood,
Genealogical Publishing Co., Baltimore, 2000. Its chapter "Court Records"
provides an excellent summary and discussion.
- The Source, Lou Scuzs and Sandra Luebking editors, Ancestry,
Salt Lake City, 1997. Its chapter "Research in Court Records" provides
another excellent summary and discussion.