Our ancestors often misbehaved -
or accused each other of doing so - and duked it out in the courts. Their family spats and criminal mischief left trails of evidence that can answer basic genealogical questions, such as when they were born and died, who they married, how many children they had, and who their parents were.
Men and women looked to the courts to settle disputes in the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries just like they do in the 21st century. They fought with family and neighbors over land and money. They accused each other of all sorts of indiscretions: fathering illegitimate children, living in adulterous relationships, mistreating their wives, and being generally disagreeable.
Don't be surprised to discover siblings and relatives saying and doing just about anything to discredit each other if it meant winning. Although witnesses were under oath, they didn't always tell the truth. As you read testimony, ask yourself whether the person had reason to embellish or minimize his points.
Frustrated researchers often tell me they have searched everywhere and can't find anything on a particular ancestor. When I ask whether they've checked court records, they give me a blank look.
But extraordinary pieces of evidence languish in court files. Here's some basics for getting to them.
Get your courts straight
First, keep in mind that there are two levels of courts: trial and appellate. All legal matters, whether civil or criminal, begin at the trial level.
Every county will have a local court that's considered part of the state system because it handles violations of laws passed by state legislatures. Records of these courts will be found either at a county courthouse or at a local historical or archival facility under the control of the local court system.
Records of trials in the federal court system will be at one of the regional offices of the National Archives or at the main facility in Washington, D.C. (To find a regional facility and see what records are housed there, visit www.archives.gov.) Matters before federal courts involve violations of the U.S. Constitution or laws passed by Congress.
The problem with state trial level court records is that they were often destroyed through neglect or disaster, such as flood or fire. In some cases, they were microfilmed before the originals disappeared. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has microfilmed many local court records, which are available to the public. Go to www.familysearch.org and check the library catalog to find what records the church has. Most state archives also have copies of the church's microfilm for the counties within its boundaries.
Start at trial level
Here's how to research in trial level courts.
1. Determine a time frame for when a relative lived in a particular county. Keep in mind that children and grandchildren often fought over estates for years, so check records for at least 20 years after the relative of interest died.
2. Determine the name of the courts that heard probate matters, civil disputes and criminal prosecutions. It could have been one court or three different ones. Most counties have websites where you can explore the court setup. For example, Google "Florida courts" and get a link to www.flcourts.org, which offers descriptions of county courts, including jurisdiction charts.
3. Although individual researchers and local/state genealogy societies may have posted scattered court cases on their websites, for the most part, the records haven't been digitized. Researchers will have to go to local Latter-Day Saints facilities for microfilm or to the courthouse to read the original documents.
4. Different kinds of records may have survived in different locations. When courthouses needed space, they tucked away wills, marriage licenses, and deeds. In other instances you may find only a minute book that shows the matter was heard, who served on the jury and the verdict in the case.
Genealogy is all about exploring the unknown, and the finds are the more dear and sweet when the search has been challenging. Exploring at the courthouse is challenging, but it's the essence of genealogical research.
Next week we'll explore appellate level courts and a strategy for research.