Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Visiting Courthouses

As the dreary days of snow fade to budding trees and the sound of lawnmowers throughout the neighborhood, there also comes the indescribable itch within so many of us to begin traveling the paths of our ancestors.

Despite the growing amount of materials appearing on the internet, some records (or at least the complete file of those records) can only be accessed at the courthouse of origination. I have learned over time that I may find a copy of the "original record" online only to learn later that there are 4 or 5 other papers that go with that marriage record that had I not spent some time digging in the county I would never had known and would have missed some very important clues. Additionally, for me there is nothing like being able to actually hold in my hand the original record my ancestor signed in 1825. At that moment I can almost feel his or her presence and the emotions are high for me. After all, isn't this why I began this journey as a 13 year old girl eons ago?

I wanted to share a few tips I have learned through my experiences at the courthouses I have visited. No two are the same in personality even if they are generally laid out the same way.

For anyone who hasn't read this book yet, I would strongly suggest that you read Christine Rose's "Courthouse Research for Family Historians:Your Guide to Genealogical Treasures". She does an excellent job of taking the mystery out of the entire process, giving us the confidence to face any situation.

Another step I take before going to a new courthouse involves a little intelligence work. I call the local genealogical society to get the "low- down" about the way that particular courthouse works. Are they friendly? Is there a particular worker in the office I should ask for? How is the office laid out? What have been your experiences with them? Are  the records accessible to me or are they behind a counter?

I also ask about the local library. Checking their catalog and hours online is valuable as well. I have spent the day at the courthouse obtaining records then crossed the street to complete further work at the library. As always, not all records are at all libraries, etc. You never know what you'll find.at the nearby library that isn't documented in catalogs. (I have a few stories to share there over the next few weeks) You may even find a living cousin!

Preparation is the key. Checking the counties' web site will tell you the hours, address, and usually the extent of records that are available within the county. I know in some cases in Kentucky there were courthouse fires, particularly during the Civil War. Do not let courthouse fires discourage your pursuits. In Ohio County, the courthouse burned but a local physician was successful in begging for time to get the records out of the courthouse first. In another county, original records are not in the courthouse at all, but in another building in town. Had I not taken the time to call the local library and ask for someone who works with genealogy records I would never had known that, and instead would have been rather frustrated.

I take a binder that includes my priority list of records I want on any trip. My lists are divided by category- Marriage, Death, Birth, Probate, Land, etc., then further divided by surname since the indexes are designed that way. I also include family group sheets, maps of the area, and any other notes I think will help, as well as noteboook paper.

In my bag I include the following:
a legal sized folder (to protect copies of papers I make that day)
butterscotch drops (help when I am thirsty)
a small flashlight (really helps when there is a word I can't read)
a 81/2 x 11" magnifying sheet to place over records difficult to read (coupled with flashlight its great)
paper clips, mini stapler, post-its (to mark the pages I need to copy), and pencils

I learned long ago that other people do not want to hear the history of my life (no matter how fascinating it may be), especially clerks in the courthouse who are busy with the work of the day, and to tell you the truth I think it really works to my benefit. When I arrive at the clerk's office I usually follow a script that has proven to be very successful for me, even in those counties that have their records behind the counter or in another room. Here's how it goes:

Arriving in clothing that presents me as a casual professional, I walk in with a level of confidence, make a point of a few greetings and comment on how busy they look to be. I identify myself as a family historian who does not want to get in their way ("after all, you have so much to do as it is, I would not want to make your job any more difficult while I am here today"). I tell them I am looking for a brief layout of how their office works "since every office has a different personality" and organization system , and do my best to get out of their way. As they see that I get to work, stay out of their way (unless of course the record I need is in a locked room ) , and appear competent in my duties, the eyes relax that watch me. I do make a point of developing a relationship with one or two employees that appear friendly which is often beneficial as well.

I love going to the courthouses, digging through boxes and indexes in search for all those treasures that fill in the blanks of my family. I wish all of you success in your endeavors as well!



PalmsRV said...

I got the courthouse itch and visited one that was new to me yesterday (Allen Co., Ohio). Never thought about using a flashlight. Thanks for the tip. When my husband was a police officer in Detroit one of his bosses told him that he didn't need a flashlight in police work. He begged to differ!

Kim said...

I came across the flashlight tip by accident when I happened to have one in my purse and realized how much easier I was able to read a difficult passage with it.


Nancy said...

I've not yet been able to research in courthouse and had no idea what to expect, so this post was very helpful. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Good suggestions for successful Court House research. Please know that your privilege of handling original documents may be revoked at some Court Houses if you are found using Post-Its. Post-Its are hazardous to documents! They can tear fragile paper or pull ink or type off the page. They also leave an invisible residue behind, which collects dirt and transfers to other pages.

Kim said...

Thank you for the point about post-its. I only use them on the records that the county has laminated for their protection. I would never use them on original records that I could damage. In fact, I take white gloves with me as well for some records if I feel they need that protection while being shuffled searched through to protect them as well.

Linda said...

Hi Kim, thank you for this excellent post. I, too, have been discouraged by the number of courthouse fires in Kentucky, so now I feel a renewed zeal to keep digging. With respect to the physician who saved the Ohio County, Kentucky records ... can you tell me where those records happen to be now? Ohio County is on my list of destinations ....

Thanks again for such an enjoyable read.


A rootdigger said...

Just wondering what would be in a marriage file of four or five pages. Need to ponder that one for a bit. And then think over some relatives who may have had similar documents. This was helpful. so far all we have found in Montana is a paragraph. though one I found through lds had the two together license and the other about the justice of the peace, witnesses. And words that make you go huh?

Teresa Wilson Rogers said...

This is a very informative post - in all my years of dabbling in genealogy research I have never been able to visit a courthouse in person to search for records. If I ever do get the chance this will come in handy! On another note, I find your blog very interesting as I have ancestors (surname Wade)from Posey County, IN and White County, IL.

Kim said...

Thank you for the nice remarks. I am finding more and more that my ancestors liked to "cross the river" frequently between White County and Posey County for everything from marriage to land purchase. Maybe I will find we are connected somewhere down the lane.