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  • Writer's pictureTheFormidableGenealogist

At The County Level

So many historical county records are available digitally and online, but so many more are not.

I still get excited when I can plan a site visit to a county courthouse to look up some records. Probate records, court filings, tax lists.... Doesn't it give you goose bumps to think of all the amazing information just waiting to be discovered in old deeds and mortgages?

The smaller, older courthouses are a favorite of mine. Most of the time one of the staff members points me to the basement, the closet, "The Annex", or some other out-of-the-way place. "Let me know if you need any help," they'll say. With rare exception, I find that they truly mean that. I love getting [what this former high school library club vice-president respectfully considers] free rein to look in whatever books and boxes I want.

You never know what you'll find between the pages of dusty books and inside water-stained boxes. However, another great find at the courthouse is often the courthouse itself. Areas with a smaller population might offer the best experience for this too. That's because those areas are less likely to have new, modern buildings for their county administration. The items I'm looking for often occupy a space that is the oldest, probably because they don't have that many visitors. So I get mini architectural tours of some beautiful old spaces on these visits. The photo below is from a central-Illinois courthouse. The "Old Part" was built in the late 1890s.

County courthouse

Occupying an old building might also mean that the county still holds a collection of really old and/or really random records. Moving out of spaces that are being renovated, or moving into new buildings, can be the point at which the more historical items are sent to the state to be archived [...or maybe even to the dumpster, sadly].

Here are some tips for visiting county court houses for genealogical research.

  • Research the county on the FamilySearch Wiki.

  • Always call before you go. I almost planned a trip to a courthouse for the week of a general election. A visitor asking why the box of 1834 tax lists is not with the 1833 and 1835 tax lists would probably be an unwelcome visitor during that busy time. They also have periods when they are closed because they're having repair work done, for example. And you definitely don't want to go when Donna (that is, whichever person knows the location of every item you're going to want) is on vacation.

  • Confirm how far back their on-site records go. A county whose courthouse burned in the 1920s, or that moved to a new building in 2010, may not offer the depth or variety of documents that the next county over does.

  • Ask about the photocopy policy. If copying is allowed, it's a good idea to bring enough cash to cover the copies you might make, and to bring denominations small enough that you don't need change back.

  • Have a written list of what you are looking for. You don't want to get home and realize you forgot to look for one of the things you went there to look for.

  • Have your list prioritized. Know which individual records might offer the most value to the current genealogical goal. Priorities might have to change or shift on the fly, however. You may find that the document you found in Item Number 3 reveals a clue to search. But searching for that clue isn't on your list. Just remember your ultimate goals and....

  • Manage your time. Compare the time you have available to your prioritized list. If I have 4 hours to work, and 10 records I MUST find, that's an allowance of 24 minutes per record. I set my smart watch timer to keep me on task. If that timer runs out and I don't have what I need, I must choose: pass on the unfinished item, or sacrifice one of the items at the bottom of my list to work longer on the current task. However, if I finish with one of my priorities far before its 24-minute limit, I might be able to work more quickly through the additional items on my list, or go back to something I passed on earlier.

  • Follow the rules. Most counties don't allow people to take photos of the documents and books, even with their phone cameras. Some counties let you bring in a pencil and a notebook, and nothing more. I have even found the page I want has been ripped out of the book--the absolute worst of the genealogical crimes. Being a respectful researcher ensures that other researchers remain welcome.

Finally, here's a pro tip for genealogy research in county records---though you can also do this when searching online records.

The administrative center of a county is the county seat. Its location was chosen so that it would be [more or less] equally accessible to the county's furthest residents. Especially in the era before automobiles, those who lived outside the county seat probably didn't "run to town" very frequently. More than one type of business may have been conducted by the same person on the same date to make the trip to the courthouse more efficient.

Conversely, one type of business may have been conducted by more than one person on the same date. If you're stumped trying to find family, associates, or neighbors of an ancestor, consider that they may have made a trip to the courthouse together. Perhaps two or more of them paid their personal property taxes together, or submitted deeds to be recorded. Don't overlook something as simple as transaction dates, as they may suggest you dig deeper in a certain direction.

Another common date-specific efficiency in genealogy is two couples who get their marriage license or marriage bond in the same courthouse on the same day. Tracking the other couple can sometimes reveal a thread common to all of them.


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