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Genealogy: Searching in a Courthouse

Learn what genealogical information you can find in a courthouse, and how to get to it.

In this article, you will find:

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Genealogy: Searching in a Courthouse

Tree Tips

Land transfers were not always recorded. The land may have been inherited rather than transferred by deed, or deeds among family members may not have been taken to the courthouse in order to save the recording fee. Diligent searching, however, should produce something, perhaps even years after the original purchase, when the land was sold out of the family.

Lineage Lessons

Sometimes the buyer never returned to the courthouse to retrieve the now-recorded document. The original deed of your ancestor's property may be in that old box marked “original deeds” or “unclaimed deeds” on the top shelf, gathering dust.

The History of the Farm

Be sure to take with you the names of the people you are seeking, the records you hope to find, and an idea of the time period. Perhaps at the top of your priority list you noted your desire to examine the deed to the old family farm. If so, your first step is to locate the office that holds the land records. There are a variety of offices in the courthouse: the County Clerk's office, Circuit Court Clerk's office, County Recorder's office, and others. Check the directory that is usually posted on the wall near the front door to find the right office.

Deeds have almost always been indexed. Land was important. A way to keep track of who owned it was essential. A deed was signed by the seller, who gave it to the buyer as proof of the sale. The buyer usually then took it to the courthouse. The seller or the witnesses came in to court to verify that the grantor signed it. This created a notation in the court minutes (a book recording a day-by-day account of what happened in court) that it was acknowledged, and the court ordered the transfer of property to be recorded. Usually, the original deed remained with the clerk of the court for several days, or even weeks, until he had a chance to transcribe it into one of the deed books. The original deed was then returned to the new owner.

Genie Jargon

The record books are normally stored in vaults—fireproofed rooms designed to help prevent destruction of the books in case of a fire.

The Approach to the Clerk

When you enter the deed office, a clerk will offer to assist you. Do not go into the details of your family's history. The clerk is no doubt busy with the day's current activities and has no time to get involved. Instead, because you know what you want, simply say, “I would like to see the deed indexes for 1800 through 1875” (or whatever records and time period you are seeking). The clerk might take you into the vault and show you where to find the indexes, or just point you to the vault and let you proceed on your own.

Indexes Tripping You Up!

Enter the record room and look around for the index books. Deeds are always indexed under both seller and buyer. There might be separate indexes: one for grantor (seller), sometimes called a Direct index, and one for grantee (buyer), sometimes called an Indirect index. Alternatively, the grantors and grantees may be listed together in one book called a General Index. If so, the grantors may be in the front part of the book, and the grantees in the back. In other variations the left page could be the grantor index, and the right page the grantee index. Or they may simply be intermingled, entered as they were recorded. In this case an additional column shows “to” or “from,” indicating whether it was a grantor or grantee. Each index book covers a period of time. Index Book No. 1 may be for 1802-1840, Index Book 2 for 1841-1890, and so forth.

For example, if the clerk transcribed the original deed into Deed Book A, page 121, he would then index the deed in an index book under the name of the seller and under the buyer, and show the book and page reference in the index. If there was more than one seller or more than one buyer (perhaps the property was owned jointly by John Mathews and his brother-in-law David Donaldson, and sold to George Graham and his wife Martha Graham), the deed was then usually indexed in each of the sellers' and buyers' names. There are exceptions.

Lineage Lessons

A court clerk might suggest that you need only look at the grantee index, and not the grantor index. Don't listen! There can be a variety of reasons why the purchase was not entered in the grantee index, although later the sale appears in the grantor index. The first deed may have been a patent or grant from the state or federal government, inherited, overlooked when the index was prepared, or just not recorded. Always check both indexes.

Sometimes the record was indexed only under the name of the first grantor (seller) or the first grantee (buyer) listed on the document, with the notation et al. (et alii, meaning “and others”) or et ux. (“and wife”) following. If it shows only “John Mathews, et al.” or “George Graham, et ux.,” be sure to follow through and locate the actual deed. It will reveal the names of the rest of those involved (referred to as the parties in legal documents). Any record in which there are multiple parties should be carefully examined; often it is a transaction between family members.

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