Genealogy Research Tips for Court Houses

Now I don’t mean “let’s go courting” in the way you are thinking because this is certainly not a romantic trip. We are going to a court house to do some research, but it can provide lasting joy if you find the results you need. The information at the court house could provide some of those missing links and help you get over the brick walls.

Before you head to the courthouse, you will need to do some planning. You need to make sure the court house has the records you need and that they were not destroyed in a fire many years ago. The local library or historical society can help you determine whether the information you need is at the court house. You also need to make sure the library will be open on the day you plan to research. I forgot to heed my own advice and traveled recently to Nashville for a research trip only to find out they were closed that day.

I would also advise to carry only the essentials with you on your research trip. Space is often limited in courthouses so they may not have a place to put all your belongings. However, don’t forget the change for the copiers. Carrying only the essentials will also help with going through security at the court house and keep in mind that some court houses are not allowing cell phones inside the building.

Once at the court house, one of the main things to keep in mind is that the staff members in the various offices are on the payroll of the county and have day-to-day responsibilities. Depend on your knowledge of the legal layout of the materials as much as you can. We will all need some help, but try to keep this down to a minimum. Just remember that every court house is different from the last five you have visited so things may or may not be in the same order. This is where the research with the libraries as well as any historical or genealogical organizations prior to the trip helps.

In many of the larger cities in the country, you will find that the counties have some system in place to make copies of their records available outside the court house. This is especially true for the older materials that are falling apart in the vaults. You might find what you are looking for outside the court house and making copies is somewhat easier. If the county is large enough, they might have a department to microfilm the records and they will then place copies of these in libraries or with historical/genealogical societies. If the court house staff has to make the copies, then please be patient with them.

Keeping your belongings to a minimum definitely helps when there is limited space. You may only find a corner of a table that is not big enough for the books and all of your stuff. I remember going into a court house in east Tennessee where the only place to study the book and make notes was in a corner of the vault. I was not beyond sitting down in the floor with the book on my lap and taking notes, but it was difficult at best.

Doing your research before the trip and knowing whether the information is at the court house also helps. I have been told before that the “those records were sent to the State Archives”, when they were still at the court house. I have also been told that “during the Civil War all of the court records were moved to a store building across the street. When the Yankees came through they burned the store and left the court house.” This was also not true.

Don’t think I am down on court house staff, most of them have gone above and beyond their duty to help me. They can only do so much in their roles, so be very appreciative of the efforts they do for you.

Now in closing, you will want to ask the staff about their lunch hour and verify the closing hour. Some offices will close down for the lunch time. Be willing to step out yourself and find a quiet spot for lunch or just sit and review what you have found thus far. You may want to keep an eye on the time as it gets close to the closing hour. My wife and I were in a court house in east Tennessee reviewing three early marriage books and had to sit outside the office in the hall. We worked there for longer than I thought as we found so many records to copy. Everything began to get quiet and suddenly I realized the office was closed and locked up. It was Friday at 5:00 pm. The staff forgot we were there and they left by another door. So here we sat with the three oldest marriage record books for the county and the offices closed. Fortunately, we found a policeman in the building and he unlocked the door while we returned the books to their appointed place on the shelves.

Going ‘courting’ can be a great learning experience and can help you find those missing puzzle pieces. Happy Hunting!

Happy Hunting!

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