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Guide No. 30: Court Records
". . . in this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.
Benjamin Franklin, letter (in French) to Leroy, 1789.
I. BACKGROUND: COMMON LAW. The unwritten law of England, administered by the King's courts, purportedly derived from ancient and universal usage and embodied in the older commentaries and the reports of adjudged cases is referred to as the common law. The term is also used in this sense, as opposed to statutory law, for the law administered by the King's ordinary judges as distinguished from the equity administered by the Chancery and other courts of like jurisdiction, and from other systems administered by special courts, as ecclesiastical and admiralty law, and (in the Middle Ages) the "law merchant." (The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989, Vol. III, p. 570.)
In the United States, as distinguished from statutory law created by the enactment of legislatures, the common law comprises the body of principles and rules of action relating to the government and security of persons and property which derive their authority solely from custom and usage of immemorial antiquity, or from the judgments and decrees of the courts recognizing, affirming, and enforcing such custom and usage; and, in this sense, particularly the ancient unwritten law of England. The common law is all the statutory and case law background of England and the American colonies before the American Revolution. (Black's Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition, St. Paul, Minnesota: West Publishing Company, 1990, p. 276.) English common law is the foundation of the law administered in all the States settled from England, and those formed by later settlement or division from them.
II. FEDERAL, STATE, COUNTY, and LOCAL COURTS. While a diligent researcher might discover useful data in the records of federal and state courts, for most of our ancestors the action was closer to home. Consequently, perhaps the most fruitful records for the researcher interested in putting meat on the bones of the memory of an ancestor will be found in local and county courts.
III. RECORDS TO SEARCH FOR IN LOCAL OR COUNTY COURTS. Think of the major events in a life and consider what records such events might generate; then think about where you are likely to find them.
DEATH church records, family Bible, newspaper obituary, tombstone inscription, cemetery records, death certificate, probate records, land records. See Lesson 4: Death, Tombstones, and Cemeteries
DEATH OF THE PARENT(S) OF A MINOR CHILD. What will become of the child is likely to be determined by an Orphan's Court. A record of the disposition of the matter also might turn up in a County Court Order Book and in the probate records of the deceased parent. (a) The court might appoint a guardian (or at a certain age, perhaps 14, the child might choose his/her own guardian), who will be required to post a bond, a record of which will be found in the same places; (b) The orphan might be apprenticed until he/she comes of age, and records of the event and the terms of the indenture found in the same places. For example, on 18 April 1759 in Rowan County, North Carolina Orphan's Court:
"11:265. Upon Unity Cosby's appearance in Court requiring to be Discharged from an Indenture made by her Mother to James Hagan And it Appearing to the Court that Suffict reaSons are offered to them to Discharge her from Sd Identure It is Therefore Ordred that the Sd Unity Cosby be Now bound to Allexr Osburn Esqr as an Apprentice to Serve him the Sd Allexr. Osburn as is usuall Apprentice for And during the Term of 4 yeares from the 10th of next Novr. it being DeSigned that She Shall Serve as afsd till She Attain the age of 18 yeares in Consideration whereof the sd Allexr Osburn Shall Cause the Sd Apprentice to Learn to read & bring her up in the Christian Religion and at the expiration of the sd Term to give her such freedom Dues as the Law Directs and to give her one good Cow & Calf allso another good Cow & Calf to the Value of 45/ in Consideration of his sd Jas Hagan keeping and giveing her what education She has Now." (Jo White Linn, Abstracts of the Minutes of the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions, Rowan County, North Carolina 1753-1762, Salisbury, North Carolina: the author, 1977, p. 103.)
MARRIAGE church records, family Bible, marriage bond, marriage license application, marriage return, land record (a release of dower provides strong evidence that the woman making the release is married to the man who is selling the land), a probate record (husband's will and probate records or in the absence of a will the record of the administration of his estate). See Lesson 5: Marriage Records and Evidence and Lesson 29: American Land Records
MIGRATION. Whether emigrating from the old country and immigrating to the new (See Lesson 15: Tracing Immigrant Ancestors and Lesson 16: Naturalization Records) or pulling up stakes when it gets too crowded (you can see the smoke from your neighbor's chimney) and heading for new land, better land, less crowded land farther West, our ancestors left a paper trail.
The new immigrant might have filed a Declaration of Intention to become a citizen in any court of record, that is any "court that is required to keep a record of its proceedings, and that may fine or imprison" (Black's Law Dictionary, Sixth edition, p. 353). He might not have stayed in that place for very long so you might find additional naturalization records in a court or courts elsewhere.
Most of those who migrated from one county to another or from one state to another left a trail in the land records in the form of their last grantor (seller) deed in the old location and first grantee (buyer) deed in the new location. Often groups of families would migrate together, so always keep an eye on the neighbors. You are likely to find an ancestor's spouse-to-be as a child residing on a neighboring farm, which is another reason to keep track of the neighbors.
TAXES ON REAL PROPERTY (LAND) AND PERSONAL PROPERTY (HORSES, CATTLE, WHEELED VEHICLES, etc.) local, county, and state records. See Guide 11: Taxing Tales
WHAT LIFE WAS LIKE. County Court Order Books make fascinating reading and contain information that might be found nowhere else. Here are a few examples:
[20 die Junii 1678] John Aush Aged aboute 28 yeares deposeth That in the difference now depending between Esqr Place and Edwd Good concerning the killing of sheep in the late troublesome times, he knoweth nothing neither was he there, onely he heard Edwd Good confering wth the rest of the Company and saying wht greedy rogues they were for killing Esqr places sheep. And further saith not. John [sign IA] Aush (Julia M. Case, "Henrico County Record Book No. 2, 1678-1693 (Orders & Wills)," Magazine of Virginia Genealogy, Vol. 29, No. 3, August 1991, p. 163.)
I:19. 21 September 1753. Rules to be Observed by Ordinary keepers in this County and Rates as followeth for Liquors &c Viz all Spiritous Liquors in proportion to Six Shillings Pr Gallon 1 Quart of Loaf suggar Pints and half a pint of Spirits therein Four pence Brown sugar Do Pr Quart Eight Pence Good Malt Beer with 4 Bushels to the Barrel of Such Beeer 4 Pence Pr Quart Small Beer One Peney Pr Quart Stewed spirits the Half pint the Same as Brown Sugar Punch. Each Dinner of Roaest Boiled flesh Eight pence Brakefast and Supper four pence and for Each Twenty four hours afterwards Two pence Stablage Each Twenty four Hours with good Hay or Foder Six Pence Corn or Oats 2 pr. Pottle the above Lodging Each Night in a good Bed and Clean Shets Two Pence. (Jo White Linn, Abstracts of the Minutes of the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions, Rowan County, North Carolina 1753-1762, Salisbury, North Carolina: the author, 1977, p. 12.)
p. 27 At a court held at Henry Courthouse on Friday 24 May 1782 for adjusting claims for property, impressed or taken for publick service agreeable to an act of assembley in that case made & provided . . . George Hairston L13 for 26 days service for a waggon team in militia from this county to Gen. Green in 1781 . . . Henry Dillon 30s for a gun impressed from him for use of Henry Militia when ordered out to join the Marquis Dela Fayette & lost . . . (Janice L. Abercrombie and Richard Slatten, Virginia Revolutionary Publick Claims, Volume II, Athens Georgia: Iberian Publishing Company, 1992, p. 515.)
MILITARY SERVICE. There is a good chance that your ancestor saw military service in some capacity at some point in his life, probably when he was between the ages of 16 and 60, although service when he was younger or older was not out of the question. Think about what the situation was at the time and place your ancestor lived and what wars or conflicts were in progress in which he might have taken an active role. Perhaps he was required to take an oath of allegiance or perhaps he served in the local militia. In either case, a record might be found in local or county records, such as a County Court Order Book. Other records of service and perhaps a pension based on his military service or benefits paid to his survivors might be found in state or federal records. See Lesson 13: Military Records (Worldwide) and Lesson 14: U.S. Military Records
BIRTH church records, family Bible, perhaps a local, county, or state record. See Lesson 6: Birth Records and Lesson 17: Church Records
British Probate Records: (Wills) Legal Records Information:
- Where to look for a Will or Grant of Administration: Cheshire Wills (1492-1857)
A search on 8 April 2000 of the USGenWeb Archives for the term "court" yielded 15,679 hits. The following links were chosen from among the first 180 hits to give you an idea of the kind of transcribed court records available to you using resources hosted by RootsWeb.
ALABAMA. SUMTER COUNTY. Probate Court Special Term. Hughey Leeman, dec'd July 6, 1874. This day came Nancy A. Leeman, and filed, in this court, her written Petition . . .
ILLINOIS. GREENE COUNTY. Calvin Tunnell Estate Chancery Suit. Circuit Court, September Term A. D. 1906. Elvira A. Tunnell Lyons, et al. v. Laura Alice Tunnell, et al.)
INDIANA. UNION COUNTY. Will and Estate Papers of Zachariah ALLBAUGH (ALBAUGH) Union County, Indiana Probate Court February Term A.D. 1845 (467) Probate pleas held at the court house. . .
KENTUCKY. LIVINGSTON COUNTY. Extracts from Court Order Book A, 1803 (Part One).
LOUISIANA. PLAQUEMINES PARISH Successions.
LOUISIANA. ST. LANDRY PARISH Court Minute Book
LOUISIANA. ST. TAMMANY PARISH 1846 Record Justice Court 1st Ward
LOUISIANA. ST. TAMMANY PARISH Naturalization Records; 1868 Voter Registration
LOUISIANA. WINN PARISH. Oath Books, Office of the Clerk of Court, Winn Parish Courthouse, Winnfield, Louisiana
MAINE. WASHINGTON COUNTY Court Index 1839-1845: Location of Plt, Def or Other- Surname H [part of a series]
MAINE. YORK COUNTY Court Index 1686-1760. Plantiff or Defendant Surname: B [part of a series]
NORTH CAROLINA. CHATHAM COUNTY Court Minutes, May 1774, ELISHA CAIN apptd overseer of road in room of John Pitts . . .
NORTH CAROLINA. EDGECOMBE COUNTY. Sparta Band Company F 30th Regiment.
NORTH CAROLINA. HENDERSON COUNTY Wills.
NORTH CAROLINA. HYDE COUNTY Will Book 11
NORTH CAROLINA. MOORE COUNTY 1835 Superior Court Minutes
NORTH CAROLINA. YANCEY COUNTY Wills
NORTH CAROLINA STATE FILE Availability of Wills by County
OHIO. LAWRENCE COUNTY Court Cases
PENNSYLVANIA. BERKS COUNTY Extracts of Selected Wills, Estates, Realty, and Orphan's Court Actions: Berks (now Schuylkill) Co, Pennsylvania (Mostly Brunswick, Manheim and Pine Grove)
PENNSYLVANIA. LANCASTER COUNTY . . . Daughters of Peter Sternman late of Manor Township in the County aforesaid Yeoman deceased, Send Greeting. Whereas by Virtue of an Order of ORPHANS COURT held at Lancaster for the County aforesaid on the Twenty sixth Day of March Anno Domini One thousand Seven hundred and Seventy three the Plantation . . .
TENNESSEE. GRAINGER COUNTY Court Minutes Vols. 1, 3, 6, and 7
TENNESSEE. OBION COUNTY Court Records Court of Pleas and Quarter Session April Term, 1835
TENNESSEE. WHITE COUNTY Court Records Crook to Goolsby, 10 April 1817
TEXAS. BELL COUNTY. Record of Inmates of County Home, 1913-1969
TEXAS. NUECES COUNTY. Abstracts of City Court Records of CORPUS CHRISTI, 28 October 1876 - 22 November 1876 (pp. 321-335)
TEXAS. LAMAR COUNTY. Estate Records of Joseph McCarty, Boxes 380 and 1143 (Note: This will was thrown out of court, but the original filed June 11, 1853 remains in the courthouse.)
VIRGINIA. AUGUSTA COUNTY Court Records. USGenWeb Special Collection: Chronicles of the Scotch-Irish Settlement in Virginia Extracted from the Original Court Records of Augusta County, 1745-1800, by Lyman Chalkley.
VIRGINIA. AUGUSTA COUNTY Court Records. Order Book No. XVII. MAY 21, 1779. (6) John Burnsides, no inhabitant. (13) Wm. Bowyer vs. Robt. Denniston. Transferred to Rockingham. (24) Wm. Bowyer vs. John Eaken Transferred to Rockingham. (26) Wm. Bowyer vs. John Steel. Abates by death of defendant.
VIRGINIA. BRUNSWICK COUNTY Deed Book 15
VIRGINIA. BRUNSWICK COUNTY. [Release of Dower] . . . to Buckner Harwell, and freely and voluntarily without any threats or persuasions from their husbands agree that shall be recorded . . . given under our hands this nineteenth Day of January 1778 . . .
VIRGINIA. CHARLOTTE COUNTY Court Orders, Book Nine 1792-1794
VIRGINIA. CITY OF FREDERICKSBURG. COURT RECORDS DIGEST by the Records Conservation Project in cooperation with the Clerk of the Circuit Court for the City of Fredericksburg, Virginia [part of a series]
VIRGINIA. CITY OF PETERSBURG. Misc. Wills from Will Book 1.
VIRGINIA. ISLE OF WIGHT COUNTY. Misc. Deeds, Deed Book 5, pp. 353-54
VIRGINIA. NOTTOWAY COUNTY Deed Book 7
VIRGINIA. PITTSYLVANIA COUNTY. SELECT DEEDS submitted by various users
VIRGINIA. ROCKBRIDGE COUNTY Will Book 1, Part One (1778-1796)
WEST VIRGINIA. KANAWHA COUNTY Will Records
Suggested Reading & References
- Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy (3rd edition). Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 2000.
- Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Revised Edition. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry, Inc., 1997.
- Analyzing Wills for Useful Clues: Skillbuilding from OnBoard, the Newsletter of Board for Certification of Genealogists
- Court Records: Finding Your Ancestors by Michael John Neill
- Wills on the Web: Wills of Celebrities and Ordinary People, 1493-1998
- Library of Virginia Index to Wills and Administrations
- Cyndi's List: Wills
Links in this Guide (in order they appeared)
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- Lesson 4: Death, Tombstones, and Cemeteries
- Lesson 5: Marriage Records and Evidence
- Lesson 29: American Land Records
- Lesson 15: Tracing Immigrant Ancestors
- Lesson 16: Naturalization Records
- Guide 11: Taxing Tales
- Lesson 13: Military Records (Worldwide)
- Lesson 14: U.S. Military Records
- Lesson 6: Birth Records
- Lesson 17: Church Records
- British Probate Records
- Cheshire Wills
- USGenWeb Archives
- USGenWeb Archives (Search)
- Alabama. Sumter County
- Illinois. Greene County
- Indiana. Union County
- Kentucky. Livingston County
- Louisiana. Plaquemines Parish
- Louisiana. St. Landry Parish
- Louisiana. St. Tammany Parish (1846 Record Justice Court 1st Ward)
- Louisiana. St. Tammany Parish (Naturalization Records; 1868 Voter Registration)
- Louisiana. Winn Parish
- Maine. Washington County
- Maine. York County
- North Carolina. Chatham County
- North Carolina. Edgecombe County
- North Carolina. Henderson County
- North Carolina. Hyde County
- North Carolina. Moore County
- North Carolina. Yancey County
- North Carolina. State File
- Ohio. Lawrence County
- Pennsylvania. Berks County
- Pennsylvania. Lancaster County
- Tennessee. Grainger County
- Tennessee. Obion County
- Tennessee. While County
- Texas. Bell County
- Texas. Nueces County
- Texas. Lamar County
- Virginia. Augusta County (Court Records. USGenWeb Special Collection)
- Virginia. Augusta County (Court Records. Order Book No. XVII)
- Virginia. Brunswick County (Deed Book 15)
- Virginia. Brunswick County (Release of Dower)
- Virginia. Charlotte County
- Virginia. City of Fredericksburg
- Virginia. City of Petersburg
- Virginia. Isle of Wight County
- Virginia. Nottoway County
- Virginia. Pittsylvania County
- Virginia. Rockbridge County
- West Virginia. Kanawha County
- Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc.
- Ancestry, Inc.
- Analyzing Wills for Useful Clues
- Court Records: Finding Your Ancestors
- Wills on the Web
- Library of Virginia
- Cyndi's List: Wills