Civil and Criminal Court Records

by Lisa South, Certified Genealogist

I jokingly tell my students that as genealogists we hope our ancestors were famous or infamous.  While this certainly makes them easier to find, most of our ancestors who were neither famous nor infamous will still show up in court records.

In a twenty year period, a person shows up in court records an average of three times.  However these records are often overlooked because searching them can be a slow process.  Not all of them have been indexed and it requires reading through the minutes to discover if your ancestor is mentioned.

There are several levels of courts in the United States, namely; Federal, State and County.  As researchers, your main interest will be the State and County records.

A few things to remember about these records:

  • From 1700-1840 Civil and Criminal records were combined.
  • When checking court records, check the defendant, plaintiff and criminal records. Don't shy away from early criminal records. In times past, many things were considered criminal - such as missing church and gossiping.
  • The Family History Library of the LDS Church has most court records on microfilm available for interlibrary loan at any one of the branch libraries.
  • Criminal records have two classifications - misdemeanors and felonies.
  • Civil actions can include torts (a wrongful act for which damages may be sought,) contract, and real property cases.

You need to learn about the court system in your county or state of interest.  If the records are indexed, lucky you!  If are not, it will require more time and patience to search.  Sometimes all you will find is that your ancestor served on a jury etc.  But, in some other cases, you will be well rewarded for your search.

Final thought: Why waste your valuable time working on genealogy that has already been done for you?  See what has already been done on your family tree and collaborate with others.  Research your family genealogy easily with the help of using the 7-day Free trial.

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