Court Records — Finding Your Ancestors

by Michael John Neill

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 research.

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.

Separate Maintenance
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 be named.

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 biological ancestry.

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.

Cases brought before a court are legal actions. These actions can be classified as:

  1. Civil Actions (private individuals versus private individuals).
  2. Criminal Actions (basically a violation of state statute or something that threatens society at large).
  3. 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 findings.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 at home.
  3. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  3. 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 consult:

  • 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.

About the Author
Michael John Neill is the Course I coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid-America and coordinates and presents the "Genealogy Computing Week" of workshops at Carl Sandburg College. He speaks on a wide variety of genealogy and computer related topics and is an instructor at Carl Sandburg College. He maintains a Web site at

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