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Court records provide a wealth of information genealogists. Although many courthouse records have been microfilmed or indexed, on-site courthouse research is vital to effective genealogical research. Court records are kept on three levels –
Microfilmed records are the next best thing to on-site courthouse research and the capability to view the original document; however, due to the brittleness of the paper and the age of the documents, many original documents are not longer available and you must rely on the microfilmed records.
If at all possible, become familiar with the court system in the state and/or county in which you are researching BEFORE you make a visit. Courts and their records will not be consistent from state to state.
The following are some examples of the types of documents that you might find at the county court level:
MARRIAGE RECORDS: These records vary from state to state. For example, in South Carolina, marriage licenses have never been required. As a result, you will only have actual marriage records and no personal information. In Alabama, marriage records were kept on the county level from the time the county was formed, unless the courthouse was burned down (as is the case with the Holmes County FL courthouse – the earliest records there are from around 1901 to present). Prior to 1900 in Alabama, the bound marriage books in the courthouse contain the clerk’s copy of the license since the original was given to the couple. Early marriage licenses will only give the two parties names, names of witnesses, parent consent for minor, where the marriage took place, and the name of the person performing the marriage. The marriage records that are available from the Holmes County FL Courthouse gives only the two parties names (bride and groom), names of up to three witnesses, when the marriage took place, where the marriage took place, and who performed the service (and their title, if any).
In Alabama around 1908, the marriage license was expanded to contain more information. In some counties in Alabama, the records start by giving the ages of the parties, height and weight of each individual, number of previous marriages, religion, place of birth, and the current residence of each party. Starting in the early 1930s, the applications started including the date and place of birth for each party, and the parents full names for each party.
In Georgia, the records are fantastic. There are three separate sets of records:
The “INDEX” to the licenses gives the marriage book and the page of the license.
The “LICENSE”, which sows the names, date, and place of marriage.
The “APPLICATION”, which gives the names, present address, any previous marriages and date of divorce if it applies, dates and place of birth, and the parents’ names and addresses.
WILLS AND ESTATES RECORDS: “Testate” means a person died with a will and the will itself will name an “Executor” (chosen by the deceased). “Intestate” means without a will and an “Administrator” will be named by the court to settle the estate. An Intestate estate will have more records than an estate covered by a will. A simple will may not even name the wife or children by name; for example, “One-third of my estate to my beloved wife of many years and the remainder to be divided among the children still living that was born of this union”. An Intestate estate which has to be divided by the courts, will usually list full names and the children and will also include the husband’s names in the case of any married daughters and the relationship (if any) of any other beneficiaries.
In the case of an Intestate estate (without a will), you will have:
A record of an administrator being named, usually giving the relationship to the deceased.
Bonds posted by the administrator, if any.
People to do the inventories are usually named and a listing of what was found during the inventory, along with estimated dollar value.
Disputes by heirs will be recorded in these documents
Final reports of settlements and the amount distributed to each heir are listed by name.
DEED TRANSFER RECORDS: Indexed by Grantee (Seller) is called the “Direct” Index. The “Reverse” Index is indexed by the Grantor (Buyer). In some states and/or counties, both of these indexes could be filed together. Also, in most states, no contract is valid unless money changes hands; therefore, even if land is given as a gift, the land will show conveyance by exchanged of at least $1.00 and listed in the deed books. Evan received by will or estate settlement will have the titled transfer recorded in the deed books. REMEMBER, a deed that is not recorded in the courthouse and is subsequently destroyed prior to recording, never existed in the eyes of the law. When a courthouse burns, officials usually ask that deeds be brought back in to be re-recorded. If the land were sold, the old deed (where he/she purchased the land) would need to be re-recorded before a new deed for selling the land could be entered. The only deeds that will be truly lost would be the ones where land sold more than once before the courthouse burned.
A wife normally has/had a “Dower Right”, which is her interest of one-third in her husband’s property. If the land is sold, she will have had to have signed away her “Dower Right” at the time of the sale.
Original land patents issued by the Federal Government were rarely recorded in the county courthouse and can be obtained from one of Federal Land Offices located in regional areas. The first record of a federal land grant would be recorded when the land was sold for the first time.
INDENTURE PAPERS: Black or white could be found in the records within a courthouse.
SALE OF PERSONAL PROPERTY: Depending upon the time period and the state you are researching, some sales of personal property may be listed in these records but few laws required this type of sale to be recorded.
HIRING OF MILITARY SUBSTITUTES: This was a common practice during the American Civil War by prominent draft-age white males. If such a hiring was made, and the courthouse survived the War Between the States, you will be able to locate proof of this action within these records.
MORTAGES/FORECLOSURES: These records are usually filed at the county level and may provide clues (such as legal descriptions of property than you can then do a title search on a piece of property) as to the financial status of your ancestors.
VOTER REGISTRATION RECORDS: These records can also be found within the county courthouse and will also provide insight into your ancestor’s beliefs and can even provide a clue as to where they might have been living during specific time periods. This is often an overlooked asset.
TAX RECORDS: This records are not usually indexed and are arranged by legal description. Your ancestor may be listed even if they didn’t own land because some things (such as horses, wagons, farm equipment, livestock, etc) were taxed if you over the age of 21. Some of these records aren’t as well preserved as other records. Also, in a lot of cases, the tax collectors may have made the trip to the landowner in order to assess the tax value and collect the money. If this was the case, the tax lists should show who owned the adjacent land. If this isn’t the case, the tax lists will be in no particular order. These tax lists will usually give the acreage, value of the land, and the name of any waterway if the land is near a river or creek.
POLL (HEAD) TAX: This tax was a yearly amount charged to free adult males from the time they reached majority (this age would vary by state to state and it could be anywhere from 16 to 21) until they reached a certain age. Again, this age would vary and could be anywhere between 50 to 60; also, these age limits were subject to be changed at any time.
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This page was last updated on: 30 Nov 2007