Civil and Criminal Court Records
by Lisa South, Certified Genealogist
The following article was written in the
September 23, 2005 OneGreatFamily newsletter. Since
Lisa is no longer writing for us, we are featuring
some of our favorite articles written by her.
I jokingly tell my students that as genealogists we
hope our ancestors were famous or infamous, and 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: Federal, State, and County. As researchers, your
main interest will be State and County records.
A few things to remember about these records:
- From 1700-1840, Civil and Criminal records were
- 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
- 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 records can include torts (a wrongful act
for which damages may be sought), contract, and real
You need to learn about the court system in your
county or state of interest. If the records are indexed,
lucky you!! If they are not indexed, it will require
more time and patience to search. Sometimes all you will
find is that your ancestor served on a jury, etc., but
other times you will be well rewarded for your search!