Genealogy Records Available at the Courthouse - dummies

Genealogy Records Available at the Courthouse

By April Leigh Helm, Matthew L. Helm

Typical records you can find at your local courthouse include land deeds, birth and death certificates, divorce decrees, wills and probate records, tax records, and some military records (provided the ancestors who were veterans deposited their records locally).

Do you have an ancestor who was on the wrong side of the law? If so, you may find some colorful information at the courthouse in the civil and criminal court records. Even if you don’t have an ancestor with a law-breaking past, you can find valuable genealogical records at your local courthouse, given that even upstanding citizens may have civil records on file or may have been called as witnesses.

Court cases and trials aren’t just a phenomenon of today’s world. Your ancestor may have participated in the judicial system as a plaintiff, defendant, or witness. Some court records can provide a glimpse into the character of your ancestors — whether they were frequently on trial for misbehavior or called as character witnesses.

You can also find a lot of information on your ancestors if they were involved in land disputes — a common problem in some areas where land transferred hands often. Again, your ancestor may not have been directly involved in a dispute but may have been called as a witness.

Another type of court record that may involve your ancestor is a probate case. Often, members of families contested wills or were called upon as executors or witnesses, and the resulting file of testimonies and rulings can be found in a probate record. Court records may also reflect appointments of ancestors to positions of public trust such as sheriff, inspector of tobacco, and justice of the peace.

Finding court records online can be tricky. They can be found using a subscription database service or a general search engine, such as Bing.

Note, however, that good data can also be tucked away inside free databases that are not indexed by search engines. In this case, you will have to search on a general term such as Berks County wills or Berks County court records. Here is an example:

  1. Go to the Bing search engine site.

    The search box is near the top of the page.

  2. Type your search terms in the search box and click the Search icon (magnifying glass) or press Enter.

    The results page is displayed. Type Berks County wills and received 249,000 results. Please note that this number changes often as new sites are added to the database. If the number of results you get is too large to reasonably sort through, you can narrow your search with additional terms, such as specific years or town names.

  3. Click a link that looks relevant to your search.

    Select the link to the Berks County Register of Wills. This site contains a database where you can search more than 1 million records covering a variety of areas, including birth, death, marriage, and estate.

Here are some sites to give you an idea of court records that you can find online: