Most courts in America are courts of record, that is, they are required by law to keep a record of their proceedings. United States courts are no exception.
Even nowadays, few people escape mention in a court room records at some time throughout their lives as witnesses, litigants, jurors, appointees to office, or as petition signatories. Nevertheless, Americans of a couple of generations ago also expected to attend local court proceedings when they were in session. It was a civic duty-and they could be fined if they did not attend. Wyoming court files mirror U.S. history. Buried away in courthouses and archives everywhere are the dreams and frustrations of lots of citizens. The chances are great that your ancestors have left a concise record of at least some areas of life in a court room records.
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Genealogists often avoid searching court records, especially when they have not been indexed. Difficult and complex research problems cannot be solved without the clues and facts contained in court records, especially in the Southern states.
A lot of people who do genealogy research tend to avoid using court records. They can be full of useful information, but people tend to not like using them. Why is that? Well, they can simply be difficult to decipher. There are often many different documents to sift through and a lot of them are not complete or seem disorganized.
Nevertheless, court documents and records can be extremely useful when you are looking into your family tree. After all, most people have some sort of dealings with courts in their lifetimes. So, court records aren’t just old, dusty documents. They are actually full of historical data. You can use that data to identify new and interesting branches of your family tree.
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Therefore, the court records from colonial times can not only be quite interesting, but they can also yield a lot of information about who our ancestors were as people and how they lived.
Originally in the American colonies there were colonial governors, who were put into power by the king. There were only a couple of courts and their function was more to assist and advise the governors. The judges of the time had very little power and that power was subject to the whims of the governor.
As the population grew in the colonies, town and county courts were eventually created. This was similar to the court structure in England at the time. Local justices were given the power to resolve small criminal matters and civil issues. At the time, some cases could be appealed to the governor, or even to the courts of England, but that only occurred in rare instances.
As the colonies continued to grow, there were more disputes. Therefore, more courts had to be established. Then, as commerce increased, cases began to be divided into jurisdictions according to type and location. Higher courts of appeal were also established.
There are many different archives of colonial court records these days, including the Pennsylvania Archives. The archived collections are generally referred to as documentary collections. They contain not just court records of the time, but also other sources of information from the time. There are also some published county court records from colonial times.
Colonial county court records are excellent for genealogical research. They give information on a much larger group of people than later court records cover. Although there are church records and vital records in existence in most cases, that isn’t always true. When those are missing, a court record may be the only way to find information about a certain ancestor. You see, the ages of the individuals involved are often listed in the court’s records, which can allow genealogical researches to determine when an ancestor was actually born.
The docket is basically a list of which cases were heard by a particular court. You can think of it as a calendar of court events, which includes case file numbers and names of the parties involved in the case. The docket may also include dates, a list of documents relating to the case at hand and a list of any important actions taken by the court during the hearing of the case. Court dockets are usually organized by chronology, not in alphabetical order. Another way to think of a docket is that it is a table of contents for a given court case.
Minutes are generally notes taken by a court clerk during the trial. They are brief accounts of important events, which may include a summary of actions and generally includes names of the parties involved. Like dockets, minutes are organized in chronological order. Many local court proceedings have published minutes, which come in handy for genealogical researchers.
Court records do often contain minutes, but they also contain many other bits of information. For example, they could contain depositions, petitions, written evidence and correspondence. The court record will also contain the rulings, judgments, orders and decrees of the court. Records relating to citizenship, re-recording deeds and appointing guardians cannot be found in different court records.
There is a great amount of variation between the courts. So, it should come as no surprise that there is also a great amount of variation between court records. Sometimes minutes are kept in their own books. Other times they are kept as part of a docket book or in some other way. Some documents are kept in bundles, packets or folders of loose paperwork, if they can’t be somehow incorporated into the main court records. Those folders and packets can often be difficult to track down, since they may be in storage. That’s why many genealogical researchers must settle for the information that can be found in docket and minute books.
Some courts are required to keep records of all of their proceedings and cases. These are called courts of record. There are also courts not of record, which may keep records, but are not required by law to do so. Courts of record are more likely to have permanent public records on file, obviously. However, since many courts were courts not of record years ago and some still are, the records of certain events simply no longer exist.
Congress met for the first time in 1789. At that time, it resolved Madison’s proposal by determining that state trial courts would function in conjunction with Federal trial courts. Each state then established a Federal district court, whose job it was to function as a trial court in that state. The creation of those Federal trial courts was a brand new concept, which is still in use today.
Of course, populations in certain areas grew as the years past. Then it became necessary to divide some states into multiple districts and have multiple Federal courts to cover those districts. Between the fifty states, there are 89 current Federal court districts. Up until 1866, some Federal district courts covered limited criminal cases, as well as civil and equity cases. Then, land seizure, naturalization, bankruptcy and trade cases were added, as well as a few other case types. Non-capital criminal cases were added in 1815.
In 1789, three Federal circuits covered the entire country. By 1866 there were nine of them. They could handle all sorts of matters relating to Federal law, especially criminal court cases. They also performed some appellate functions for cases that began in certain district court systems. 1891 brought about the creation of circuit courts of appeals for district courts. The original circuit courts had the same boundaries as the circuit courts of appeals and their powers overlapped with district court powers, in some cases. The original circuit courts eventually became unnecessary and were eliminated in 1911.
Most Federal circuit and district court records from before 1950 are housed in the National Archives.
It’s common for genealogical researchers to look at certain old court documents. Among them are:
- Naturalization Records
- Guardianship Records
However, there are many other court records that some researchers fail to look at. There is a lot of excellent family history information to be gained from court records. Physical descriptions and names, occupations, residence and more may be listed in the court documents.
When looking for ancestral information in court records, it’s important to remember that they may have participated in a wide variety of court proceedings. They could have been listed in cases of divorce, adoption, personal injury, property disputes, tax issues, contract disputes, licenses and more. So, there is a good chance that the ancestor in question is listed somewhere in court records, either as a plaintiff or defendant or as a witness or juror.
Civil Court Cases:
Civil court cases involve one corporation or individual suing another over a rights violation. Trespassing, property damage and libel are a few examples of topics covered in civil court. Other topics include breach of contract, wrongful death, personal injury and divorce.
Criminal Court Cases:
In a criminal court case, a person is accused of wrongdoing against the state. Murder, treason, arson and theft are examples of topics covered in criminal court. Some criminal court cases are serious felonies, while others may be minor infractions, or misdemeanors.
The Dual Court System:
There has been a dual court system in the United States ever since the Constitution went into effect in 1789. Prior to that, various state courts existed. These stayed into effect after the Constitution was created and enacted. However, when the Constitution went into effect, additional Federal courts were created to handle cases involving Federal statutory laws, violation of the Constitution and other serious offenses.
Probate court records of administrations, guardianship and wills can offer a lot of genealogical history. However, as you can see, examining criminal records is also important. They can be a wealth of information.
Local And State Courts:
There are two main levels of courts within each state. Appellate courts are like the last resort within each state. They are generally called supreme courts and they are the highest level of state court. Some states also have intermediate appellate courts. Those courts are used to review lower level court cases, when necessary, but when a higher supreme court is not required.
Trial courts make up the lowest level of courts in each state. They are usually split into two groups. The first is general jurisdiction, which often handles major civil cases, as well as felony criminal cases. The second is special jurisdiction, which handles preliminary felony hearings, misdemeanor cases, traffic violations and small civil cases, as well as estates and wills.
Each court presides over certain types of legal cases and covers a certain designated county or area. The names of those courts vary greatly and some have changed with time. Some of the names include:
Each state’s courts get their authority from their own state. Therefore, the exact number of courts, names of the courts and other factors vary from one state to the next. Although, in general, all state courts handle civil and criminal cases that involve the braking of state statutes and laws.
Unless the law specifically stipulates that another court should handle a case, every case is presumed to be within the jurisdiction of the general jurisdiction court. There are, however, certain cases that are only tried within limited jurisdiction courts.
The problem for genealogical researchers is that courts have changed names and jurisdictions a lot over the years. However, every state has a supreme court and at least one trial court level. A handful of cases can be transferred from state to Federal courts, as specified by the constitution.
A lot of courts in the United States have been broken up into certain categories, based on their powers and their types of proceedings.
Law courts are similar to ancient England’s common law courts. They preside over cases in which one of the parties is trying to collect money due to a past injury. They also preside under a few other types of cases, based on custom statutes.
Courts Of Chancery Or Equity:
This type of court also originated in England. They began after the Norman Conquest. They would provide resolutions for cases that weren’t properly settled by the common law court system.
These types of courts were meant to supervise will creation and estate settlements for the deceased. Probate courts were also used in cases of adoption and guardianship.
There is a distinction between equity courts and courts of law. However, the lines vary greatly from state to state. Among the original U.S. states, most continued using courts of chancery or equity and several newer states followed their lead. However, equity courts are no longer in existence in most states. Now most common law judges are also judges in equity cases. In colonial and revolutionary eras, a lot of local courts did handle both civil and criminal actions.
- The Federal Court System: The U.S. Constitution gives Federal courts their authority. Congress can also authorize Federal courts to handle certain cases. There are four major divisions of the federal court system.
- The Supreme Court: The Federal Supreme Court handles any cases in which the state is a party in a case. It also has jurisdiction over certain other cases that begin in other Federal courts.
- Circuit Courts Of Appeals: These courts have appellate jurisdiction over other Federal courts. That is, unless the appeal must be made to the supreme court.
- The District Courts: These courts handle many different types of criminal cases and civil cases. They also handle cases in which parties are citizens of different states.
- The Court Of Claims: These courts handle cases in which claims are made against the U.S. based on statutes or contracts.
Sometimes Federal court jurisdiction is concurrent with state courts and other times it is exclusive. In concurrent instances, some state court cases are removed to the Federal court system for various reasons.
Court records are created at the time of a trial, but they aren’t always published immediately. In fact, it may be years before a genealogical publisher chooses to publish them. It’s more likely that you will come across docket books, minutes or transcripts from certain cases. Those records may be published by genealogical societies, individuals or publishing companies.
Published trial court records can be very useful in genealogical research, even though some entire case files are never actually published. It may be impossible to locate word-for-word court transcripts, but there are often abstracts, or summaries, of the court proceedings.
If you are planning to examine abstract court records, you should know that they are limited in their helpfulness. Abstracts are never as accurate as the original court records are. However, abstracts can often lead to information that can be used to locate original records, even unpublished records. Abstract records contain indexes which can help the researcher to find information on the person of interest.
Many original court records are not in the best shape. They could have many issues, including: Lost pages, Crumbling Pages, Fading Pages and Torn Pages
That’s why it can be helpful to get the assistance of someone with a legal and editing background to sift through the records. Printed transcripts and abstracts, on the other hand, have already been edited, restored and somewhat organized. Therefore, they can be quite useful in genealogical research. Many genealogical libraries house entire multi-volume collections printed transcripts, abstracts and other records from various courts.
In recent years, many court records, abstracts and excerpts have been printed. In fact, some states publish new records so often that researchers must keep checking to see what new records have been released. Even though there has been a recent spike in record publication, many court records are still not published, but new genealogical records are being published almost all the time.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that court records don’t just contain information on those accused of crimes. Jurors, witnesses and other participants may be referred to in the records. So, there is a good chance of finding the ancestor in question in court records, if you can find records from the appropriate place and time.
Most states have a couple of different general jurisdiction trial courts. Each state also tends to have a similar basic court structure. However, the exact functions of the courts within each state can vary quite a bit. Not only that, but some states do have more special jurisdiction and trial courts than others.
In order to understand the state court records systems, you need to first understand that each state court system is divided into either districts or judicial circuits. Each of those district or circuit courts covers a certain area, which could include a single county or multiple counties. The divisions were determined based on the population in any given area at the time that the divisions were determined. There are general trial courts in each district or circuit, but they go by different names in various states.
Each state’s court system also includes county courts. The courts in most counties are limited jurisdiction courts. It’s also important to note that some county courts served legislative and administrative functions, not just judicial functions. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, courts were particularly involved in legislative and administrative duties. They gave out licenses to ministers and midwives. They also oversaw ferries, bridges and road construction and upkeep. They also collected taxes and appointed officers to the militia. So, many different residents of the given area were mentioned in court documents for one reason or another.
Trial courts are known by many names, including: Circuit Court, County Court and District Court
In any case, they are almost always associated with a specific county. An example of this is if a case was being tried in Jefferson county by the state court. In such a case, the court in question might be known as the Circuit Court of Jefferson County or for Jefferson County. That’s why most trial court records are widely classified as being county court records. The result is that genealogical researchers will find that state records are not always known as state records. Sometimes they are listed as being records of a county court.
In cases where courts have limited jurisdiction, a lot of states will authorize general jurisdiction courts to oversee some court proceedings. In most cases, there is an entirely new trial when a general court appeal is made. Whereas, if the appeal was made to a state supreme court, there would be no new trial requested. The supreme court would just look at the records from the first trial to see if any errors were made during the proceedings.
A lot of genealogical libraries house indexes and records from state courts. In fact, some of those libraries have old microfiche or microfilm dockets, orders, minutes and indexes from local court proceedings.
Even if your ancestor is not mentioned in a probate case, consider all of the other procedures which might have resulted in him or her appearing in court records:
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