Washington Government records cover a broad range of genealogy subject areas that can help you as part of your research, such as land ownership, courts, taxes, and naturalization’s. Given that Washington court records cover such a wide selection of topics, they could aid you in many different ways. As an example, they could aid you in finding ancestors’ residences, identify occupations, locate financial information, determine citizenship status, or shed light on relationships between individuals. The whole thing relies upon on the type of court records that the ancestors” names show up in. For Definitions of all court terms see the Genealogy Encyclopedia.
Washington Courthouse records change extensively from county to county in both level of quality and volume. You will find different kinds of court records that are most likely to possess information related for your genealogical research below.
Washington Court Records
The district courts, superior courts and supreme court make up the court system in the state of Washington. The supreme court, which is located in Olympia, has jurisdiction over the state and hears any appeals that come from superior court cases. Public interest cases, cases challenging the laws of the state and cases involving constitutional laws are all heard by the state’s court system.
There are only twenty-eight state trial courts of record. They are the state’s supreme courts, which have supreme jurisdiction over everything, as their names suggest. They hear appeals from the superior courts, but they also have original jurisdiction regarding felony cases, some misdemeanors and criminal cases. All cases may be held in front of a jury. The Washington State Archives house microfilmed superior court records.
The superior courts for the state hold all of the state’s probate records. They can be found at the county courthouses, but many are also available at the various branches of the Washington State Archives. There are 62 district courts. They have concurrent jurisdiction with superior courts in matters involving felony case preliminary hearings, as well as misdemeanors. Both criminal and civil cases may be tried in front of juries. Any appeals in the district courts are heard in the superior court system. Very few records are kept for the current district courts because they are not what is known as courts of record, which means that they are not required to keep certain records
Territorial Court Records – Washington Territory came about as a result of 1853’s Organic Act. That same act created a judicial system for the territory. That system included justice court, probate court, district court and the state supreme court.
There were originally three judicial districts in Washington Territory. The first one covered the eastern region, while the second covered the southwestern portion and the third covered the northwestern region. The central Washington region got its own judicial district in 1886.
Each of the District Court Judges sat on Washington Territory’s Supreme Court. Any appeals for the district courts went to the supreme court. The Territorial Legislature set the supreme court meeting times and court convened in Olympia. The U.S. Supreme Court heard any appeals from Washington’s supreme courts.
Any cases involving Washington Territory’s laws or the U.S. Constitution were presided over by the district court. Cases of Chancery (Equity) and Admiralty were also presided over by the district court. Any disputes involving maritime or sea-related matters were cases of admiralty. Up until 1864, divorce cases were also under the jurisdiction of the district court. After that time, the Territorial Legislature was also allowed to grant divorces. Appointments and bonds of officials, bar admissions and naturalization paperwork were all filed with the district court as well. Justice and probate court appeals were heard by the district court.
When probate and justice courts were established, any cases involving less than $100 in damage were heard by the justice court. Those included both civil and criminal cases. Often, Justices of the peace would hear complaints and then send those cases to the district court, which had the proper jurisdiction.
There are more than 37,000 criminal, probate and civil cases from the Washington Territory District Courts collected and on file at the Washington State Archives. See Also Research In Court Records.
- U.S. Circuit Court Criminal Case Files, 1790-1871
- Washington, County Records, 1856-2009 Collection of various records including vital, probate, school, tax, naturalization and other records.
- Washington Court Record Books (amazon.com)
Washington Land Records
The federal government used land grant acts to get settlers to move into areas that didn’t have high populations. That’s how Washington became a settled region.
Each single man was given 320 acres of land for free, while each married couple received double that amount. That land was given away in what was then Oregon Territory, which included what is now Washington. The land was distributed in 1850 and all distribution was to be distributed by December 1 of that year. All settlers were required to stay on the land for a four-year minimum term. However, in 1853, the term was reduced to only half of that time. Washington Territory got the same land grants beginning in 1854, thanks to an act passed by congress.
The National Archives-Pacific Alaska Region, which is located in Seattle, holds land donation records for 1851 to 1903. However, the records are separated according to whether they were for Washington Territory or Oregon Territory. Either the FHL or the National Archives have abstracts and indexes for many of the land claim files. They are listed as Abstracts of Washington Donation Land Claims, 1855-1902 (National Archives, 1951). The Donation Land Records for Washington have been index and published by the Seattle Genealogical Society. There are also microfilmed copies of the Washington Donation Land Records, which can be found in the state’s major libraries.
The wonderful thing about donation land grants is that they contain a wealth of genealogical information. They list the name of the person who is taking over the land, a description of the land and the person’s marital status. The wife’s maiden name is also listed, in cases where the land owner is married. Birthplace, date of birth, citizenship and other information also may be listed in those documents.
Land district settlement conditions (homesteads) or cash entries (payments made in cash) accounted for many of the other land entries in the state. Each district opened at a different time. They are: Olympia (1854), Vancouver (1860/1861), Walla Walla (1871), Colfax (1876), Yakima (1880), Spokane Falls (1883), North Yakima (1885), Seattle (1887), New Olympia (1890), Waterville (1890)
Eligibility requirements for those land entries dictated that a person needed to be a U.S. citizen or be able to prove that they were in the process of becoming one. The person had to be at least 21 years old or be the head of their household as well. Widows were also eligible. Anyone who was eligible was allowed to purchase as much as 160 acres of land. Anyone who lived on the land after 1862, when the National Homestead Act was passed, could buy that amount of land after making improvements, growing crops and living on the land for a period of five years. The General Land Office kept those records. It later became the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM. The BLM has records of land transactions, which the land office kept in tract books. Any lands that were patented have been indexed by the BLM.
Land transferences were common at the time. After a person took possession of the land from the government, they could sell that land. Some land was also transferred in divorces or when the original owners died. Other land was lost due to foreclosure. The county auditor recorded each mortgage or deed. Those records can be found in county courthouses or at the Washington State Archives’ regional branch. See Also Guide to U.S. Land Records Research
- BLM Land Records (glorecords.blm.gov)
- Washington, County Land Records, 1850-1954 (familysearch.org) This collection includes land and property records with indexes from Clark, Grays Harbor, King, Kitsap, Lewis, Mason, Pacific, Pierce, Thurston and Wahkiakum counties.
- Washington Land Record Books (amazon.com)
Washington Probate Records
Estates and wills were originally under the jurisdiction of probate courts in the state of Washington. The probate courts were also given the power to determine guardianship for those who were insane or for minors. They presided over both insanity hearings and adoption proceedings. The state superior courts took over all of those responsibilities in 1891. The county clerk then took possession of all of the records from the probate courts. The Washington State Archives now has many of those records on file. See Also Guide to U.S. Probate Records Research
- Washington, County Probate Case Files, 1832-1950 (familysearch.org)
- Washington, County Probate Records, 1853-1929 (familysearch.org)
- Washington Probate Record Books (amazon.com)