An enormous amount of data is available in courthouses throughout the world. After speaking with family members and conducting Internet searches, you will want to visit courthouses to get more information on your family’s work history, land owned, marriages, deaths, and even criminal records.
Create a List of Courthouses to Contact
Courthouse Records and the Census
Census records from 1790 to 1840 listed only the names of the head of household and the number of persons by sex, age group, and slaves. Census records from 1850 to 1930 give the names of all the persons living in the household, age, place of birth, occupation, etc.
You will likely have an idea of the geographical area that your ancestors were from after talking to relatives and searching the Internet. Obtain a county and state map and highlight courthouses that may contain possible information. Then, make a list of the courthouses ranked in order of greatest likelihood to least likelihood of finding information. You will want to search as many courthouses as possible because the jurisdiction of counties has likely changed over time, so some ancestral information could be in a neighboring courthouse.
Call Before You Visit the Courthouse
Once you determine which courthouses you would like to visit, call ahead to obtain the hours and policy information. Some courthouses will have transferred their central data onto microfilm and sent it to the state. Each individual courthouse will be able to tell you over the phone if you should go straight to the state level.
When You’re There
Some courthouses will require an attendee to sit in with you while you research. Other courthouses may have certain hours you are allowed to visit and research information. Finally, you will want to make copies: take plenty of cash and coins to do this.
Records to Search:
- Census records
- Social Security death records
- Land deeds
- Birth and Death Certificates
- Migration and Naturalization Documents
- Marriage and Divorce
- Legal documents
And Here's What's in Those Records:
- Census Records. Census records will have data for when and where your family lived. The U.S. Census first started in 1790 and has been done every 10 years since then. For help in reading Census cards, this PDF link from is extremely helpful: howtosoundex.pdf (Also, see this PDF for a Census Surname Logbook: censuscheckoff.pdf)
- Social Security Records. Death records care kept at the courthouse in this file.
- Land Deeds. There is a county-wide surname index to virtually every land owner in America since the early 1600s. There is a surname index for most counties that gives the names of ninety percent of the heads of households of that county. The index is called the "Grantee/Grantor" index or "Index to real estate conveyances.” Deeds are recorded at the courthouse of the county where the land was located. While land records do not give the vital statistics, they can provide you with evidence of the places where an ancestor lived and for how long and when they may have moved into or out of a county.
- Wills. Some courthouses will contain wills so you can see exactly what your ancestors deemed worthy enough to pass on and to whom.
- Marriage and Divorce Records. Marriage and divorce records are highly important in the genealogy process because you clearly see which families merged together.
- Birth and Death Certificates. Birth and death certificates are also important in the genealogy process because you can clearly trace lineage. Also, if the parents died early in their children’s lives, in some cases you can trace the orphan lineage. You may discover someone within the line that is lost due to being adopted by a different family.
- Migration and Naturalization. Courthouses will have various documents that show when a person or family migrated over to the area or emigrated from a different country. These records could open up a completely different path for you if you discover when and where someone came over from, leading you to a different country’s courthouse.
- Legal. Some courthouses will keep records of legal documents, such as arrests and time served. Discover if criminal behavior runs in your family!
Remember, start with a list of what you are searching for and where you hope to find it. This will help you avoid getting overwhelmed from the amount of information that's out there.