Research Your Scottish Ancestry

Robert WilbanksThe Courthouse - a Potential Gold Mine

by Robert M. Wilbanks IV, B.A.
Chief Genealogist & Historian, C.S.A.

Unique to the North American landscape is a man-made physical feature called the Courthouse, or Court House. It is a building that is home to local courts of law and regional government officials and activities. Most notable in small rural counties, it is usually the county seat, and often centered and equidistant from the farthest four corners of the county jurisdictional boundaries.

The term itself is also unique to North America, as usually in other English-speaking countries the buildings that house courts of law are simply called “courts” or “court buildings”.

In Continental Europe, and former non-English-speaking European colonies, the court buildings are often called “palace of justice”.

I will cover English and Scottish courts, records and record keeping in future articles. This article will focus on the importance of the American County Courthouse, the records they generate, and their genealogical value.

While there are certainly other levels of jurisdictions of law and governments, such as city, State and Federal, the County Courthouse is the most prominent and significant of records in genealogical research. The County Courthouse is the site of our ancestors’ everyday lives, daily routine and activities related to business as well as court. As a result, a town would grow around the courthouse, eventually with a Post Office, stagecoach, and later the train to haul goods and materials in and out of the county. Often, there was a parade ground, or green, in front of the Courthouse, where the militia would train, community picnics, or other celebratory functions would occur. Some of these courthouses are some of the most grand and historically notable architecture across the country.

Karnes Cty Texas Courthouse So what is the genealogical significance of the Country Courthouse? The most commonly used records for genealogy research are found here. Through them, you can verify an ancestor’s residence, or learn previous residence, learn their business or occupation, financial assets and/or societal status, or citizenship status, relationships, age and possible dates of births, marriages and deaths, and so much more. While Criminal Court would be the first thing that comes to mind, there are many, many other types of records created at the Courthouse relevant to the daily lives of our ancestors.

Property deeds are filed at the County Courthouse, including land, slaves, cattle, etc. Mortgages, liens or other contractual or monetary responsibilities would be filed in the County Court. Cattle brands are filed at the Courthouse. Early Naturalizations were conducted at the Courthouse. Wills and the probating of the estates was a required court proceeding for the proper dispensation of property. Guardianship bonds would be filed there. Annual Tax returns would be collected by the county. Voters registrations, Sheriffs orders, Jury duty, militia records, official appointments, etc. Even frequent law suit cases; our ancestors were very litigious. And on occasion, depending upon the state or the region of the country, many Counties recorded marriages, requiring a bond or license, and some may even have recorded births and deaths.

However, one of the unfortunate aspects of Courthouses, is often, particularly early on, they were constructed of wood, and stored all the relevant paper court documents. This made the Courthouse a tinderbox to fire, as well as subjected to floods, tornados and more. Thus, frequently records were lost, creating the genealogical term “burnt counties,” referring to counties suffering great loss of records. As an example, 50% of Alabama’s county courthouses suffered a minimum of 2 fires during the history of the county. Many of Virginia’s and Georgia’s courthouses suffered extensive loss of records due to the Civil War. However, not everything was lost, and thanks to differing levels of jurisdictions and redundant bureaucracy, research is still possible in these counties.

Therefore, it is incumbent upon the researcher to know the county residence of an ancestor, learn about the ever-fluctuating county jurisdictional lines, history of the county, the courthouse and the courts, the types of records kept, whether those records still exist, and where they might be accessible.

The possibilities are vast, making the County Courthouse a potential Goldmine of genealogical information. So when researching your genealogy in the United States, records created at the Country jurisdictional level is going to be among the most important, and most frequent, resources you will utilize.

This is another of a series of articles in which I show you the basics of searching for your family history, discussing the use of family records, public records, and online resources nationally and internationally, etc. The previous articles are now available on the Genealogy Section of this website.   See “Genealogy” in the menu options at the top of the web page.