Surprise! Not All Documents are Online

Is it still necessary to go to the courthouse to find family research records? Can’t I find it online? Well, not everything is online.

Some of the most valuable records available to family researchers and genealogists are still being discovered in old leather-bound binders and folders tucked away in courthouses and city offices.

While more records are added to databases every day, there are still millions of records in courthouse basements, storage rooms and on microfiche (film containing microphotographs of pages of a document), awaiting to be discovered.

Common Courthouse and City Office Records

  • Probate records, regardless of whether there was a will: Letters of Administration, guardianships, final estate distribution, bonds, inventories
  • Divorce filings
  • Homestead claims
  • Land warrants
  • Licenses
  • Indentures
  • Pauper registers
  • Voting registers
  • Vital records (births, marriages, deaths)
  • Tax records (“poll” taxes assessed on males above a certain age, land tax records, personal property)
  • Civil and criminal cases
  • Records pertaining to slaves, including bills of sale (enslaved persons were once considered personal property)
  • Contracts, leases, title or deed used by buyers and sellers in transferring ownership of land, buildings, or home.
  • Family court records
  • Pension affidavits
  • County plats

These types of important documents can help you tear down those perplexing brick walls.

Courthouse Visit Tips

  • Plan to spend the day scouring through old records, because the clerk working in the office doesn’t have the time to look everything up for you. They are there to point you in the right direction.
  • Bring you own supplies, including a notebook, magnifying lens, pens, computer tablet (if you have one), archival cotton gloves, and a phone for taking photos of records (if permitted). Record all research results.
  • Go prepared. Bring target names, dates and city/county names to start your search.
  • If you are looking for a specific type of document, let the clerk know so they can pull out those records.
  • Call ahead to determine hours and any visitor rules.
  • Ask lot of questions, like: what office holds birth certifications; or where can I find land records.

I admit my first in-person courthouse visit was a bit intimidating, starting with finding the office where the records were held. But once I got started, aided by a very helpful clerk, my experience was exhilarating and I could have spent days there.

Magnifier for reading documents with fine print or interpreting legal documents
Ink pens should be in your courthouse go-to kit
Always carry a journal when collecting genealogy research information

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