Courthouse Lessons Learned

This was reprinted from the former Ancestry Daily News–it originally ran 8 August 2000. It’s just as true today as it was then.

I recently was fortunate enough to visit two courthouses located a distance from my home. Both experiences were good, and they brought to mind some things worth remembering when visiting any courthouse.

Things Might Be Misplaced
One courthouse indicated that they had the records I wanted, but that those particular records were in a sub-basement and were somewhat disorganized. There had been a flood a few years earlier, and all the records were saved, but keeping everything in the correct order played second fiddle to saving the records from the coming water.

Things Might Be Lost Forever
One courthouse caught fire in the 1860s, and most of the records were saved. Unfortunately, the defendants’ and plaintiffs’ indexes to the civil court records didn’t make it. However, there was one partial work still intact. The civil court order books were available, and the years each book covered were written on the spines. Each volume was indexed by defendant only, and this was a difficulty. A partial way to get around this would have been to look in the individual books for the years of interest. If I had located an interesting case, I would have had the dates that various court actions had been undertaken for that case—and perhaps a case file number. With the case file number, I could have accessed the correct packet of court papers. Even with the dates of court action, I could have pulled the boxes containing cases for that time period and manually gone through the boxes looking for information on the specific case. This approach is not as fast as using the defendants’ and plaintiffs’ indexes, but it is better than nothing.

Is It Really Gone?
The estate record index for one potential relative in Missouri in the 1870s indicated that the case file was empty. Darn! I was hoping for something in the packet that might mention his children or possibly the man I thought was his brother. Later, in looking through the index of guardianships, I located a guardianship for his children. The file contained all the estate settlement information on the father (inventory, accountings, list of heirs, etc) that at one time had likely been in the “empty” file.

Do They Speak Your Language?
Bear in mind that the courthouse staff might not be familiar with the terms you use. If the individual does not understand what you are talking about at first, try describing the record. Different counties may use slightly different names for different records, and a description may trigger a connection to the record you need. The county might also have some type of record you did not think to ask for. Asking for civil court records is a good idea, but if the query is met with a blank stare, mention that you are looking for divorces, partitions, or whatever it is you are interested in. This may give the staff the clues they need to help you.

Are They Familiar with the Old Records?
Some office staff members may be more familiar with old records than their co-workers. In other offices, no one may be familiar with the old records. Gently ask if it is possible to view indexes or other finding aids. Some offices may bring the indexes to you at the front counter. Others may say, “Come on back and have a look.” It varies. I always gently say, “I see you’re kind of busy . . . I don’t mind looking myself.” Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but being overbearing, demanding, and rude should not be your first plan of attack.

Always Ask Before You Copy
In some offices, copying is self-serve. In others, it is not. If it is self-serve, use care when making photocopies—some records are extremely brittle. Find out the cost per page before making copies. Some places charge per sheet; if that is the case, determine if you can copy two-sided documents front and back, thus reducing your copy expense.

They Might Have Pressing Work
In one county, I wanted to access records from the coroner’s office. The coroner was in, but was dealing with a fatality that had happened a few hours earlier. I left him the information I had along with my name and address. Obviously dealing with the fatal accident took priority over my 1921 coroner’s inquest request. Some county courts hold court every day, and “court days” are not a problem. In smaller or more rural counties, “court day” is busier than usual, and office staff may be dealing with the current schedule of cases. Non-court days may be extremely slow, and if you can find out beforehand which days these are, you may be better off—on a “slow day” you may have an easier time getting your questions answered.

Do Not Wear White Clothes
At one courthouse, I was allowed into the basement where many of the older records were kept. However, it was dusty and dirty. Dress clothes were definitely not needed for work in this environment. Had my wife been wearing heels, climbing around and stepping over boxes and other materials would have been difficult. Dress as if you were going to a “work” day at a church or school. Don’t wear anything really ratty, since the office staff might not take you as seriously. But also don’t wear anything too “dressy,” since it might hinder your ability to work with the older records.

Where Can You Eat?
One county seat I visited was in a very small town with no restaurant. This didn’t go over very well with my wife and children. Fortunately, there was a diner in a nearby town. Determine before making a trip if there is a motel in the town or in a town nearby. Will you be driving thirty miles for a chain motel? If you are used to interstate travel and a choice of motels and eating establishments at nearly every exit, you may be in for a rude awakening if your courthouse travel takes you into rural, isolated territory. Juice boxes and pre-packaged food that does not melt in your car or in your hands may “tide you over” until your research at the facility is complete.

Smile, Be Personable, and Make Chit-chat
In some courthouses, you may be the only entertainment. While it’s not necessary to put on a show, being friendly and making a certain amount of “small talk” may significantly impact your ability to access records. In one office, the more I made small talk, the more records the clerk happened to mention that he had in his “personal” collection of published materials that he happened to keep at the courthouse.



One thought on “Courthouse Lessons Learned

  1. -Thank you, all great examples – of what can be available, not available, or happened at that location…
    I know with some Southern State’s courthouses, “old/olden” records are in the local county or state archives -are often SAVED away (not in current courthouse-due to space- and difficult to obtain to see review… as when you do/find – you need more!) – as said – ALWAYS call ahead, to find – what is available to you…
    Even more important now, that FHC – will no longer be able to send the microfiche to review at their centers/libraries.
    Thank you, GJ

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