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Genealogy Research: Courthouse Secrets

Updated on June 9, 2011

Insanity, brother suing brother, children conceived or born out of wedlock, land rented but never owned, felons, bankruptcies, suicides and coroners' reports: Some of the spicier - but admittedly more difficult - genealogical information can be found in courthouse records.

You may already have some "interesting" material about the old folks - gathered from old family stories. But a lot of that information will be anecdotal - and unproven. And as for the really good dirt, it was probably hidden away and forgotten long ago.

Looking for family skeletons is not to everyone's taste. Many people just can't stand the thought that an ancestor took a wrong turn, and would prefer not to know if they did.

For the less squeamish, the county courthouse is a veritable pirate's chest of old family secrets. And for those whose curiosity exceeds their anxiety - you just need to know what to look for. In this hub, I am going to help you with that.

"Dead men tell no tales" - but courthouse records can make them speak from beyond the grave
"Dead men tell no tales" - but courthouse records can make them speak from beyond the grave

Courthouse records

As genealogists well know, county courthouses have been the repositories of record for centuries. What kind of records? Court records like divorces, name changes, naturalizations, adoptions, and civil suits; Vital records like births, deaths and marriages; Estate records like wills, administrations, bond books, accounts, and guardianship records; Land records like deeds, mortgages, survey and plat books. For genealogists, and snoopy descendants, the courthouse is the place to go to spice up that genealogy video you have in mind.

Civil and criminal records

Maybe you completed some interviews for your genealogy project and noticed that there were some "no-go" areas - some topics about which the subject was reluctant to talk. Or maybe the family story was vague or just missing something. Could be there is a scandal buried in the past - and a lot of scandals have their origin in the courts.

Perhaps a criminal matter lies hidden in the past - bigamy, assault, murder even. Or maybe a divorce or an illegitimate child. Sometimes there were acrimonious break ups of a family businesses or farms. Maybe civil law suits to enforce a contract or collect a debt. Possibly there was a death in the family (a suicide say) that involved the coroner. The courthouse holds these kinds of records as well as change of names, tax records, and naturalizations.

Births, deaths & marriages

Vital records are the meat and drink of genealogy and are vital for your genealogy project - particularly in allowing you to get your family chronology correct. But recording vital events has been patchy over the centuries; and in many cases did not occur at all.

In some cases, cities enacted laws requiring registration before counties. And if that is not confusing enough for the genealogist, the various states took over birth, deaths and marriage registration in the late 1800s and the early 1900s. So it's a bit of a patchwork.

But the effort is well worth it and frequently turns up long hidden family secrets. Try comparing marriage records with the birth record of the bride - discrepancies are common suggesting that the bride was younger than stated (sometimes under legal age). And, no surprise, birth records and marriage records when compared frequently show children of astonishingly short gestations!

Tip: Accessibility does vary - sometimes the records are closed to the public, so check ahead.

Like it or not, every family has secrets
Like it or not, every family has secrets

Wills and probate

The courthouse has other rooms which may hold secrets for your genealogy video. There is still the Register of Wills section of the county courthouse to rummage through (sometimes called the Surrogate's Office).

Genealogists know that the courts have long been involved in proving wills and administering estates. (Court supervision has been necessary because of the temptations consequent upon a death!) Probate records and estate packets are a very rich source of information. One of the documents you may find is the inventory listing showing all the property of the deceased on death (land, livestock, household items, even slaves - if any were owned). The inventory may be very detailed (e.g. how many cups and saucers, knives and spoons!).

If the deceased had a will, that should be in the file and may show children, current and former residences, previous marriages and well as the intended disposition of property. If there is no will on record, then the person may have died intestate, but the court still had supervision in an "administration".

Many of the secrets lying in wait in estate records can be gleaned from what was not said or done, more than what was. For example, were some children not provided for? Is there a previous will or a subsequent will ("codicil") and how do they differ? Why might be the reasons for the change in intentions?

Land records

After all the secrets of birth and marriage records, and of court proceedings and wills, land transactions can seem a little pedestrian. This office of the courthouse is sometimes called the Recorder of Deeds, the County Recorder or the Register of Conveyances. And like other areas of your genealogy video research, the information you find may be more incidental than central to the transaction.

Real property deeds will likely contain information for the genealogist like the names of the grantors, residences, occupations, dates, property descriptions and consideration (price), signatures and witnesses.


You may have a book in mind for your research, or even a genealogy video (something I specialize in). Either way, the county courthouse holds endless documents to flesh out the lives of our families long ago and will help build your book or video narrative. Your toils inside the county courthouse is bound to reveal family and genealogical secrets once long lost - if you have the nerve to look!


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    • JaneA profile image

      JaneA 5 years ago from California

      It is also possible that an unlucky(?) ancestor was transported to America, a penal colony before - and for a longer period than - Australia.

      (It was, of course, the American revolution that closed Britain's American colonies to English convicts and made Australia the preferred dumping ground.)

      Thanks for the comment!

    • GoodLady profile image

      Penelope Hart 5 years ago from Rome, Italy

      Really well written Hub on a fascinating story teller's dream!

      The records.

      Great information here, thanks.

      (I'm from UK originally but have always longed to know much more about my ancestors...and who might have sneaked off to America or got transported to Australia).

    • grayghost profile image

      grayghost 6 years ago

      Thanks for the excellent and very informative Hub. My nephew and I are involved in a very intensive search of one family member who had a remarkable career as a common enlisted man in the Third US Cavalry during the Indian wars. Your article gives us new avenues to pursue.

    • JT Walters profile image

      JT Walters 6 years ago from Florida

      I liked this article as well. It gave me some ideas about how to obtain my grandmother's birth certificate.

    • Auntie D profile image

      Auntie D 6 years ago from California

      Excellent article on courthouse resources. You never know what you'll find!