Courthouse Research:

Satisfaction or Frustration?

© Linda Haas Davenport

A much shorter version of this Essay appeared in the Sept/Oct 1998 issue of Everton's Genealogical Helper and in the June 1999 issue of Heritage Quest Magazine

This is my one essay that may NOT be printed or used in any manner except for private use. I share the copyright with Heritage Quest Magazine.

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 Gee, I Want To Go To The Courthouse

Most experts tell us to make the courthouse the "last resort" for research, even after the local libraries. They know that for most researchers a trip to a courthouse ends up being frustrating and disappointing because the trip is so unproductive. This is especially true when we have made an out-of-town trip and don't know when, if ever, we might be able to return. Yet, a trip to the courthouse doesn't have to be frustrating and disappointing. A little preparation and some discipline can change the trip from one of frustration to one of satisfaction.


Some Things to Consider

If you have never been to a courthouse before there are some things you need to consider. Record books at courthouses are large and heavy. Most weigh in at about 10-20 pounds and will cover the entire glass copying area of an office copy machine. They are "racked" on metal shelves with "pockets" sized to contain these large books. Each pocket has a set of rollers that allow the book to slide in and out. These racks reach from the floor to about 6 foot high. If you have back problems, problems stooping or squatting, or cannot lift heavy objects, then you should think about taking someone with you who can handle the books.

In many small county courthouses the record rooms are very cramped with only a large center table about 4 foot in height available to use. There is no place to sit down and it is necessary to stand the entire time you are looking at record books. If standing for long periods is a problem you will need to take into consideration rest periods when you are compiling your list of research items.

Even though all county courthouses have made their courthouses accessible for persons in wheelchairs the same cannot be said for the record rooms, mainly because there is simply not enough physical space in the courthouse. If you use a wheelchair please check with the courthouse to be sure that record books can be removed from the record room to an area of the building that will accommodate a wheelchair. It might be necessary to take a folding card table with you to use for your research. Be sure to check with the courthouse to see if tables are available in an area that is wheelchair accessible.

And, one last item to consider when planning your trip. The majority of "closings" on real estate take place the last week of a month and the courthouse is normally filled with title attorneys or their clerks. It's tough to compete with them for use of the record books. Think about making your trip during the middle two weeks of the month.


Getting Ready

Most of the major records (deeds, wills, court records) of local US courthouses have been microfilmed by the LDS (Latter Day Saints) and those films are available from the local LDS Family History Center (FHC). Visit your local FHC and check the Locality Index for the county you will be visiting and make a list of the courthouse records that can be ordered on microfilm. These will be the records you check last at the courthouse because those records will be available to you at any time.

Reach for your Handybook for Genealogist (or you might have the Red Book) and check to see what records are found at the courthouse you will be visiting. Each of these books lists a phone number for the courthouse. Keep the book beside you and make a phone call to the courthouse (this is one time a phone call works better than a letter).

The very first thing to ask is whether the records you want to search are still located at the courthouse. This is extremely important since many courthouses have moved all of their old records (excluding land records) to the state archives. Also, not all courthouse clerks welcome genealogist and a real easy way to insure a genealogist won't show up at the courthouse is to say the records aren't available. If the clerk says the records aren't available - check your Handybook (or Red Book) for the records listed and don't hesitate to tell the courthouse clerk that it's your understanding that such and such records are at the courthouse. If the person on the phone tells you that all the records have been moved to the State Archives, follow up with a call to the Archives "just to make sure".

There have been times when I have found that old records have been moved to "U-Stor-It" type storage buildings and are not available to anyone for research. But, believe me I spent some time on the phone making sure the information I had been given was correct.

Some states have recently closed their courthouse records to everyone (outside of the legal profession) unless they are a member of the local genealogy society. If this is the case for the courthouse you want to visit then it will be necessary for you to contact the society and become a member.

If the records you want are still at the courthouse, ask about their hours, directions to find the courthouse and if they have particular rules or regulations that you need to be aware of.

It is extremely sad to say that many courthouses have experienced major thefts of their records and are now keeping their records under lock and key. In some courthouses you will have to "check out" record books, much as we have to do in state archives, or you will have to be checked in and out of locked record rooms.

Be sure to ask the cost of copies and whether you are allowed to make them yourself or if a clerk must make them. It takes forever sometimes to get a clerk to stop working (or chatting with co-workers or visitors) and make a copy for you. Ask if you need exact change for the copier or if you pay for copies all at one time. If you own a small personal copier that you want to take with you be sure to ask if there are any objections to its use and if an electrical outlet is available. (As a side note, personal copiers will NOT handle regular sized record books. However, there are many small ledger type record books that work well on personal copiers and those are normally the record books that have not been microfilmed.)

Ask if the local genealogy society or some helpful person has made a list of what's available at the courthouse. Many times such lists exist and no one volunteers the information.

If you intend to take a laptop computer with you be sure to ask if there is an electrical outlet available. Many times there is not and you must rely on your battery. Knowing this can help determine what you take in "printed" form and what you can access on your laptop. Make a note of all the answers. I enter this information in my word processing program so that I can print it and take it with me.


Getting Organized

One thing to bear in mind while getting organized is the amount of time you will have available at the courthouse. Unless you are extremely new to genealogy you already know that it can take several hours to search a full roll of microfilm if you must look at each frame (page). It takes about the same amount of time to look through each page of a record book. Keep that in mind as you get your material organized.

Sort through your research materials and make notes of what you want and need to find at the courthouse. Review everything you already know and have already checked. There is no need to waste time at a courthouse checking a book or record that you have already checked.

You simply will not have time at the courthouse to dig through piles of research notes trying to locate a date, name or place. Do this type of digging at home where you have all your notes and the time to find your information.

Now comes the hard part - you need to prioritize what you want to find. I usually find that EVERYTHING has top priority, but of course everything can't be number "ONE". To help me sort out what I want to find and get it in order I write myself detailed notes. I use my word processor but you can do this on index cards, slips of scratch paper or whatever works for you. You will sort and re-sort these notes until you get your list prioritized.

For example: For many year I've been trying to locate the name of the first wife of John Haas in MS. Knowing that a wife had to sign a deed of sale my note for the Monroe County Courthouse read like this: "DEEDS - John Haas SE1/4, Sec 15, TS9, Range 14E - property purchased for cash Jun 1832. Was in Itawamba Co by 1850. Find deed of sale - look for wife's name. Locate Tract book, find next deed in line - pull deed". Another note read: "MARRIAGES: John Haas (m) Talitha ca 1853, need copy of marriage record - have checked index no luck. Try Bass, Moss, Kass in indexes. If no luck check each page of the marriage register".

Once you have made all your notes match them with the list of available microfilm from the LDS FHC. These items will move to the bottom of your priority list because if you run out of time at the courthouse you know you can order those films. And don't depend on your memory! Make a notation on each note, such as LDS, to help you remember these records are available elsewhere.

Now sort your notes into groupings that match the record groups found at the courthouse. Group all your notes for Deeds together, all your Marriages together, etc. Even in the smallest courthouse not all records are located in one room. Rather than run back and forth between rooms have all your information grouped together by record type.

Once you have your information grouped together by record type look over your notes and assign a priority number to each one. Compile a list. Be sure the most important note is at the top of the list and the least important is at the bottom (don't forget to note LDS next to items available on microfilm).

Decide at what point you will stop searching a record type and move on to the next type. You might have 15 deeds you want to locate but only the top 3 are of major importance. Draw a line between the items to separate top priority from lower. Otherwise you might spend all of your time at the courthouse searching only one type of record and miss all the others.

When you make your list leave several blank lines between your notes. This is the area where you will write in what you find or don't find and the records you searched. You won't have to try to figure out when you get home what piece of information goes with which question and it will also keep you on track at the courthouse.

Last but not least, arrange you group lists in order of priority. If deeds are your highest priority that list should be on top or court records or wills or whatever is most important for you. Just like your notes - arrange your categories (groups) in order of priority. Review your lists one last time before you put it in your briefcase or tote bag.

Pack: (1) Your lists of research notes (2) the notes you made when you called the courthouse (3) a pad of paper or notebook (4) pens and pencils.

Please don't take all your research material with you to the courthouse. If you "just have to have it - in case" then plan on leaving it locked in your car.

Many people suggest that when you visit a courthouse you "dress like a lawyer". Don't bother. It takes any court clerk about 2 seconds flat to size you up as an amateur and "one of those genealogists". Dress neatly (no sweats) and comfortably, slacks or jeans with pockets are a great help if you are a female. Money and change can go in pockets and handbags can be locked away in the truck of the car. Keeping up with a purse in a courthouse is simply an added burden. Lugging around heavy books or getting dirty in a basement shouldn't be done in high heels or a suit.

OK - All dressed and packed? Then let's go.


At the Courthouse

When you arrive at the courthouse approach the most likely looking person (by that I mean the person who doesn't look at you and frown) to inquire about where the records you are interested in are located. Use your lists of categories (deeds, marriages, etc.) and make notes of where the records are located. Even in the smallest courthouse not all records are housed in one room. If basements or storage rooms or vaults are not mentioned ask if any of the older records are stored in these areas. Clerks usually don't mention these areas and you can miss a gold mine of information by not knowing these areas contain records.

Once again ask about any particular rules or regulations, find where the copy machine is located and how to use it (you can spend a lot of money on wasted copies by not knowing how a particular copy machine works), find out how to pay for copies, who makes them, etc. You got most of this information when you called the courthouse, but you need to compare it to the human standing before you who will either be more helpful or more obstructive than the one you talked to on the phone.


You Are Ready to Search

In record rooms there are usually several people who are busy using the record books (the number depends on the size of the courthouse). Many of these people are title attorneys or their clerks and they are researching titles for property sales. They do not like genealogists (or at least I have never met one who does). They do not react well to questions and in many instances will be downright rude. Searching record books is what these people do for a living so please try to stay out of their way and if you are asked to relinquish the record book you are using please do so with good grace. Normally their searches take only a few minutes and they will return the book.

Using your lists go to the room that contains the records for the 1st item on your "Top Priority" list. Once you are in the room take a "visual inventory" of the records / books on the shelves. Start at the back of the room and walk every aisle. You will almost always find records on the shelves that were not listed in the Handybook (or Red Book) or in the LDS Locality Index. Make a note of these records and take a second to flip through them. Make a note of what the book contains and its name.

For example at one courthouse I found a ledger of land that was taken back for taxes, membership rolls for several "Ladies Societies", a book of licenses for old churches and cemeteries and a minute book for the "Police Committee". Such items are not usually indexed and not usually microfilmed. Don't get sidetracked at this stage but it's important to know these items exist and where they are located.

For my question about John Haas' first wife I found that there was no deed of sale. By checking the book I found of Land Taken Back for Unpaid Taxes I discovered him listed. I now know that I won't be able to locate the first wife's name through deeds and can quit searching those items. Had I not "inventoried" the room I wouldn't have found this ledger and would probably still be searching deed records. Knowing that his land was taken for unpaid taxes leads me to check other types of records for the information.

Once you have inventoried the room, start with you first question. Consult the indexes first, then if necessary look at each page of the book or each page of loose records. If you don't find your information make a note of what you searched and note that the record didn't contain your information. Remember those blank lines in your notes? This is where you record the results of your research.

If you find what you are searching for, make a copy of the item, turn the copy over and make a note of the date, the name of the courthouse, the name of the book (record) where you found the information, the page number and any other information that will allow another researcher to find the same information or allow you to go back to that particular source in the future. Number the copy with the same number of your note on your list. For example if the copy is of a deed and it's number 5 on your list make a note "D-5" on the copy. In the blank area of your list make a note you found your information.

Move on to the 2nd question on your list and repeat the process. Try your best not to get sidetracked, (which is much like telling a child to only look at one shelf in a toy store!) When you reach the dividing line on your list stop searching that particular record type and move on to the next type (for example if you were searching deeds and the next highest priority is marriages, then move on to where the marriage records are located). If the next record type you want to research is located in a different room once again take your "visual inventory" of the room.


Time is Flying By

Hopefully by the end of the day you will have all of your questions answered and can investigate all those interesting things you found on the shelves. But, usually it's a case of more questions than time when you are visiting a courthouse. If you find yourself running out of time this is where your trip to the FHC pays off. Look over all your remaining questions and mark off those that can be answered using available microfilm. If there are any questions left go through the room(s) and make a note of the name and location of the book or record that you think might contain the information you need. Note this information in the blank area of your list.

I, personally, sit down about 2 hours before I must leave the courthouse and carefully go over my remaining questions and decide if I want to continue searching for answers or if I want to spend my remaining time looking through those interesting items I found during my visual inventory. I can tell you that I usually opt for the interesting items. I know that these items are not available to me outside of the courthouse and many times I have found ancestors in these records. Your decision will depend on how high a priority you set on your remaining unanswered questions and whether you will be able to return to the courthouse at a future date.


Time's Up!

Before you leave the courthouse approach a clerk and ask how they respond to written requests for information. Find out the cost of copies and searches. Some courthouses will tell you that they simply won't search at all, that you have to have an exact book and page number before they will even make a copy. Others will do limited searches if you know the book or record you want checked. You must take each courthouse individually and work within their process.

Be sure to thank the clerks before you leave.


The Trip is Over

A trip to a courthouse can be a fun and extremely satisfying adventure or be so frustrating that you want to "swear off" of research forever. The odds of your trip being the former rather than the latter are greatly improved when you simply do your home work up front, use some organization and a bit of discipline. Try this approach the next time you plan a courthouse visit I think you will be pleasantly surprised at the results.

(have you visited a courthouse and have information to share? Share it here)


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