Researching Court Records
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| Researching Court Records
This article is part of a series.
|Overview of Court Records|
|Types of Court Records|
|List of Court Record Types|
|Researching Court Records|
|Selected Proceedings and Courts|
|Justice of the Peace Courts|
|List of Useful Court References|
Although some court records have been microfilmed, printed in books, or digitized, the vast majority of them have not. In most cases it is to the researcher's great advantage to visit the courthouse or the archives where the records may be stored and to search the original records personally. As mentioned previously, with the ever-enhancing technological tools available to us today, it is usually possible to at least determine the availability and access policies of a given jurisdiction before ever embarking on a trip to the courthouse. Using a home computer or taking advantage of the nearest public library, begin with an Internet search for the county court most likely to have records for the place and time period needed. Learn the dates of their holdings that are accessible, their research policy for onsite visits, and the address and open hours of the facility.
Regardless of the form in which you view the court record: original, machine copied, or compiled by a group or individual, always include a full citation of the records location and condition so that you or others can locate the source of your findings at a later date.
Searching Original Court Records
Begin an onsite search with the index to court cases-civil, criminal, or equity-whichever is pertinent to your search. Early indexes may depict only the name of the plaintiff. Since around 1840, most courts have both a plaintiff and a defendant (or reverse) index. This index will give the case number or the box in which the case file or packet (also called a case jacket) is stored.
Next, ask the clerk for the case file by the case or box number. You will receive a packet of documents folded or rolled into a bundle and secured with a string or a rubber band. In more complex cases, the case file may be in a large container. This file has the loose documents and copies of the important papers of the case.
Then examine the docket book entries, using the dates for the beginning of the case and the date it was closed by judgment, which you will find on the outside of the case file. Entries are either made numerically by case number or chronologically by date of case. A quick glance will tell you which applies. Examine all the entries for the case to see if there are other references you need to check. For example, the docket book may note: "Exhibits 1-14 in storage vault" or "Companion case, No. 4321."
From the case file, decide whether you will begin with the orders, judgments, or other documents. Wherever you find a reference to another document that does not appear in your file, seek it out. Watch carefully for evidence that the case was appealed to a higher court or that the parties settled by arbitration.
If there is not a suitable index, or no index at all, search a jurisdiction's records page by page and entry by entry. Begin on the first page for the period of time an ancestor lived in the area and work through each page. Copy all entries with pertinent data. Before using a digital camera or a photocopy machine, request the permission of the clerk. There could be rules against either. If facsimile reproduction is not available, take extreme care to transcribe all documents completely and accurately. Words or phrases that cannot be deciphered should be followed with a note to that effect in brackets. If an entry seems incorrect, such as the surname spelled differently within a single document, transcribe each appearance exactly. You can follow one of the entries with a question mark or comment-again, in brackets. Your finished copy should be as faithful a reproduction as would be a camera image or a machine copy.
By Mail or Representative
An alternative to onsite searching is to contact the courthouse or engage someone to visit on your behalf. To search by mail, request a photocopy of the indexes or dockets for the period of time and the surnames you are searching. This is a short, easy request, for which you can expect to pay a fee. When you get your index copies, order the files you wish, giving specific case numbers. It is wise to ask for a cost estimate before the files are copied, although some courts will bill you; then you can send the right amount when you order the files. Some courts will supply estimates over the telephone or by e-mail. Nearly every court or archives has a website with full contact information.
If you have an extensive list of cases to check, hire a local genealogist to search them for you and provide extracts or photocopies of both the recorded copies in bound volumes and the case files, omitting duplicate documents. Do not ask court personnel to make extensive searches for you. They have neither the time nor the interest to do a careful job, and a missed entry can be misleading. A particularly good way to find a good genealogist in the area of interest is to consult The APG Directory of Professional Genealogists current edition. The Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) also maintains an online directory of researchers at http://www.apgen.org/index.html.
Searching Copied Court Records
Many court records have been microfilmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, including some case files. They are kept in state archives and county offices. Consult the catalog of the Family History Library to determine which microfilms are in their collection. Some states and counties have microfilmed their early records to provide better access for users, without handling fragile volumes. Courthouse or archives staff should be able to provide a list of microfilming that is available only regionally.
When you use microfilm, be sure to read introductions or annotations in the catalog carefully so as to understand what may be missing from the film or problems discovered during the filming process, such as erroneous page numbering by a clerk.
Scanned or Digitized Copies
As with microfilmed versions, digitized copies of records found online or scanned copies in print form are generally considered to be faithful reproductions of the original. Rarely will someone alter the contents of these reproductions although the possibility does exist. Because of the high probability of accuracy, a scanned, digitized, or microfilmed record is considered as acceptable as the original. The limitation is that few of these reproduced versions will include every record pertaining to a particular case. For example, a will might be digitized in its entirety. But the associated papers in the case files, giving names of creditors, payments made by the executor to support a widow and children, and a full listing of the possessions of the deceased may not be digitized. Always expect there to be more records associated with a case and whenever possible, do the onsite research.
Searching Compiled Court Records
Compiled court records are those that have been hand-copied or typed and then produced in manuscript form or published online or as a printed version. Such publishing may be done by an interested researcher acting alone or from a project of an area's genealogical society or the USGenWeb team. An online search by name of county and state followed by "court records" should produce some options to explore that include both online and paper copies. While compiled records have some limitations to consider, their use is both practical and valuable.
Value of Compiled Court Records
While it is best to rely upon original documents for research accuracy, there are many benefits to first viewing a compiled version. One obvious value is availability. Many transcripts were created during the nineteenth century and predate the loss or destruction of the originals. Although the quality varies widely, these transcripts may represent the only existing copies of some of the records.
Another benefit is indexing. Most transcribed works are fully indexed, providing the names of all witnesses, jurors, court personnel, attorneys, and litigants. In addition, they usually give the volume and page number of the original record and sometimes the case number. Thus, the published volumes can serve as an effective and more complete index to the originals.
Finally, a carefully prepared copy can aid in comprehension. The unfamiliar handwriting of a court clerk, the prevalence of legal terms, Latin and French words, unknown abbreviations, and fading ink can make original court records difficult to read. A well-trained, experienced compiler-editor can often make a better transcript than an untrained researcher. Such a copy can be used as a guide to understand the words in the original document and can thus save hours of poring over hard-to-read documents.
As a result of these circumstances, published transcripts can prove invaluable to the researcher who recognizes the limitations of such compilations and uses them wisely. One of the most important aspects to wise use is to understand the format in which the copied material is presented.
A compiler of published court records, online and in print, has at least three format options in which to present the content. These are abstracts, extracts, or verbatim transcriptions. Each format has value and limitations. One key question for the user of a printed or online record is: does the copied version portray a full or an abbreviated version of the original? An explanation of these three options and other data-collection standards will be found in The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual. Following is a short explanation of the formats.
Abstracts and Extracts
Extracts and abstracts are abbreviated versions of original documents; no attempt is made to copy the original entirely. Below are examples of extracted entries. The numbers in parentheses refer to the original page numbers.
- March 16, 1779
- (400) Garrat Wheeler exempted from levy.
- (402) Elizabeth, wife of James Thorpe, soldier in the Continental Army, with small children, allowed L25.
- (406) Commission for priv. examination of Mille, wife of Charles Cummins, as to deed to Robert Cummins.
- (406) Joseph Crouch as Captain, Jacob Warwick and Alexr. Maxwell as First Lieutenants - qualified.
- (407) Elizabeth Wilson, soldier's wife, with small children, allowed L20.
- (407) Admn. of estate of William Wallace granted widow Jane.
- (408) Court appoints John Graham guardian of Joseph Graham, orphan of David Graham.53
Note that the format of each extracted entry is similar. The compiler has included certain elements of identification that enable the researcher to recognize an individual or event. An extract is a precise copy of one or more parts or sections of a document.
An abstract usually offers more detail. An abstract summarizes essential points or important details from a document. It shows those key elements in an abbreviated format and omits the boilerplate language. An example of an abstract is:
- Abstract from Records of the Court of Sessions of Westchester County (New York)
- Bayley v. Baly
- December 1st 1691/1692 Mary Bayly by Mr. Antill complaint against husband Nathan Baly with warrant to appear on December 17 at Westchester Court.
One can readily see that neither the extract nor the abstract gives the full and complete text of a document. Furthermore, in both cases it is the compiler (extractor or abstractor) who decides what information to present. And the compiler may or may not be a genealogist. Therefore, it is prudent to consult the original record for additional detail as well as for the accuracy of the prepared copy.
Verbatim transcripts record every word with original punctuation and spelling. The editor will indicate in brackets any additions made by him or her. The following is an example:
- Records of the Court of Sessions of Westchester County (New York): (Westchester Historical Society Publications, Vol. 1)
- At a Court of Sessions held at Westchester for Ye County of Westchester by their Maj[es]ties Authority p[r]esent John Pell Justice & Quorum presed[en]t of the Court: John Palmer Justice of ye peace & Quorum & Daniel Strang & William Barnes Esqrs Justices of ye peace Decem[ber] ye 1st: 1691 - absent Joseph Theale Esqr Justice of ye Peace [1692 crossed out: 1691 inserted]
- Mary Bayly Enters a Compl[ain]t against her husband Nathan baly by Mr. Antill her Atturney by petition
- [next is crossed out] the Court hears the Complt and orders that Nathan Baly shall be sent for by a special warr[an]tt & that he appear on ye 17th Instant to Answer ye above said Complt directed to ye Sherrif or his Deputy And if he doth not appeare at the time appointed at westchester Court the matter is deferred for further Examination unto Justice pell & Justice Theale.54
Annotated transcripts are verbatim transcriptions with records from other courts, case files, and/or court opinions to reconstruct the whole case. (Rarely, however, are all papers in the case file used.) Each of these formats offers value to the researcher. The potential, however, for copying errors or inadvertent omission of important detail makes it necessary to consult the original version whenever possible.
Once the researcher understands the format chosen by the compiler-and the possibility of omission of detail or associated records-it is time to evaluate the quality of the work. Note the comments of one editor concerning a series of transcriptions:
- In reproducing these old records the manuscript has been faithfully followed, even when this means repeating obvious slips made by the old scribes, such as omissions of words, repetitions of words, or the use of words clearly wrong. The only liberty taken with the original text has been . . . to supply in brackets the missing word or words, where the old paper . . . has left enough letters of the defective word to justify this.55
The attention to detail evident in the above quote is a strong indication of a quality transcription.