Publisher of Quality Genealogy Materials
Volume 6, Number 25 Mountain Press, P.O. Box 400, Signal Mountain, Tennessee 37377, 1-423-886-6369 December 3, 2014
In this article we will discuss a few tips for a courthouse visit. Being prepared for a courthouse visit is so important. Sometimes you can find great information at the courthouse that can't be anywhere else and helps fill in the details about your ancestors.
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James L. Douthat
LET’S GO COURTING
At some point in everyone’s research of their family, they feel the need to go to a courthouse. Sometimes you go for no other reason than to prove the information that you have already found elsewhere. This is a trip many find is necessary and most of the time is very enlightening. In the courthouse, there are records that most internet sites do not begin to touch. These facts may not change your story, but they do shed a great light onto the ancestors’ day-to-day living. The notes sometimes are worth more than just the dates of major life events.
Before you venture out take a few minutes and check the time schedule of that particular court system, hours of operation, days set aside for genealogical research, which court has the records you want to view, etc. A few minutes here will save lots of time when you arrive. Remember that most of the courts have security in place, so you will have to be searched, your belongings looked into and most of the time now you will need to go through a metal detector. Don’t leave your great-grandfather’s little knife in your pocket as the guards don’t like them going into the courthouse.
The second step is to take a little time to know what the particular courthouse houses there and what is kept elsewhere. At one courthouse, I had viewed some records and returned several years later to look at those same records. I was told that those records were not there anymore, but they were taken to the State Archives. However, I had just been to the State Archives and they did not have the records, so sometimes you have to be persistent. If you go seeking one particular record, check with the clerks in that office to see what else can be found. Sometimes there is information that you did not know about and will help you in your search.
Keep in mind that every courthouse is different and you may or may not be provided a suitable space to view the records. Since most of the books are large and heavy, I have been known to just sit down in the floor and place the books on the floor and go about my viewing. In one courthouse, my wife and I just stopped to check for information. It was about the middle of the afternoon on a Friday and we found the books. Space was provided on tables in the hallway of the court house, so we sat down in the hall with three of the oldest marriage books. Suddenly my wife noticed that the clerk’s door was shut and all was quiet. They had just locked the doors and left with us in the open hallway and three original marriage books in hand. I suggested that we keep them and return them on Monday on the way back through the area. “No way!!” she said and quickly found a policeman with a key. After taking the books back into the clerk’s office, we left.
Courthouse policies on viewing the records also varies from place to place. On some courthouse visits I have been placed in a small room with the book. I was allowed only one book at a time and then the door was locked with me inside. In some areas, the clerk has to stand by you as you look through the materials. In Illinois, the clerks say that many have cut out the signature of any case signed by Abraham Lincoln. In order to preserve their records, they stand guard over them. Can you blame them?
Finding that little piece of the family puzzle in a courthouse is so rewarding. Many years ago I was in a courthouse in the Shenandoah Valley to view a marriage license and I was led down into the basement. It is not unusual to be handed a flashlight and a ball bat when you enter the basement. I was looking for the original marriage packet which exists for most of the early Virginia marriage records. In Virginia, there are as many as five different sources for each wedding and these are all kept together in a packet tied with the normal red ribbon that in time become grey or pink depending on the light. You know the old saying of “cutting the red tape”. This is where it comes from as most early court records were tied together with the red ribbon. I found the record in question and screamed out with joy. There in writing was the one fact I had found nowhere else as to the ancestor of my great-grandfather. This was the marriage packet of one of his two sisters and her guardian wrote that he had known her since birth to be the daughter of so and so and on a set date she would be of legal age to marry without his consent, but he gave consent anyway
A little work before you go to the courthouse will pay off nicely in the long run. The various sources of information that help to paint a full picture of your ancestors’ life is a great interest. Later in this series, we’ll explore some of the unusual resources available in court houses that printed materials do not always cover. Good luck and always be kind to the clerks, it will huge dividends in the long run.
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