Introduction: In this blog post, Duncan Kuehn show how legal articles in old newspapers can tell you about some of the experiences your ancestors went through, and help steer additional research into their court cases and legal issues. Duncan is a professional genealogist with over nine years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?”
Court records are a gold mine for genealogists. A court record can be anything from a probate record, divorce decree, or guardianship case, to a criminal trial or civil action. Most of our ancestors were involved in the court system in one way or another. But how do you know what court records include your ancestors? Searching through old newspapers, such as those in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is a good way to find clues.
Americans were just as litigious in grandma’s time as they are now. Many people owned land, and that property would have to be distributed upon their death through a will (testate) or letters of administration in the absence of a will (intestate). Our ancestors were also called as witnesses in cases involving their neighbors. And so on.
These court records add a tremendous amount of texture to our understanding of our ancestors’ lives. Knowing more about who our ancestors were and what they were doing can increase our attachment and understanding of them. In addition, court records can also solve brick wall situations. For example, you may find that great-grandpa Connors and his son Jacob were sued for poaching on their neighbor’s property. If you were trying to connect Jacob to his father with documentation, you would have direct evidence of their relationship.
Information Contained in Court Records
Court documents will vary in what information is found within. For example, a probate record might include the names of the decedent’s heirs, what property they owned, clues about their lifestyle, etc. A divorce decree may list the minor children of a couple, the cause of the divorce, etc.
Not all of the records within each type of court document will have the same kind of information. For example, not all wills mention the names of all the heirs. One will I found simply left the decedent’s property “to be divided equally among my children.” However, other wills are highly detailed and informative. Some court document files can be hundreds of pages long!
Court records use legal verbiage, which can be confusing at times. Don’t let this deter you. There are many resources available to work through this challenging legal language. After a while, your comfort level with legal terms will increase and reading the court documents will become easier.
You will also begin to notice that certain phrases are repeated in court records. For example, a will often starts with the phrase, “In the name of God, Amen.” These types of phrases are called boilerplate, and recognizing them can help in reading the court documents. Becoming familiar with these common phrases and how they were used will increase your understanding of what the court document actually says. In the case of the beginning of a will, the phrase “In the name of God, Amen” does not indicate that your ancestor was highly religious; it was just a legal phrase used to begin a will. However, it does mean that your ancestor did not object to such language – which would mean they were not a Quaker or staunch atheist, for example.
Old Newspapers & Court Documents in the News
The main challenge researching your ancestors’ court records is finding them. You may not know a court case existed at all. You may not know in which jurisdiction to begin searching. You may not know what date to search. Unfortunately, most court records are not indexed. You can search through docket books and/or court minute books, but this can be a time consuming venture – especially if you aren’t sure a court case even existed.
Fortunately, there is an effective alternative: searching historical newspaper archives. Old newspapers often listed the cases seen before the court each week or term. Digitized newspapers online are easily searchable, and this often makes finding the court case a breeze!
The legal notices in a newspaper can take several forms. Here is one newspaper that organized the trial list by day:
This newspaper organized its legal list by type of case, court, and room. It even included the case number (bless them!).
This newspaper gave a short synopsis of what happened during the hearing:
Why were newspapers reporting this information? There are a number of reasons for making court case info public; three come immediately to mind. The first reason being that there was a legal requirement, in many cases, to publish the date of a hearing so that those who were affected could come to the courthouse and participate. Second, it has always been a part of the American justice system to have an open court, except in unusual circumstances. And lastly, before the advent of TV, this was actually a form of entertainment.
How to Find Court Records in GenealogyBank
To find legal information relating to your ancestors in the newspaper, some exceptional search techniques are required. For most genealogy research, you should not narrow a newspaper search down to just one paper. Searching for legal notices in the newspaper is the exception to this general research rule because the cases are often listed just by last name. Entering in “Robertson” without narrowing your search by a newspaper or region would yield far too many results to be practical.
Here are instructions for narrowing your results to a town or specific newspaper when searching GenealogyBank’s records. From the home page, go ahead and enter the last name only of the ancestor you’re researching.
Once the results page appears, select “Newspaper Archive (1690-2010).” Scroll down to the bottom of the page and select the state. Once the new results page has loaded, scroll down to the bottom of the page and select the city. If you still need to narrow it further, scroll down to the bottom of the page and enter the keyword “court,” a date range, or select a single newspaper. (Chose one, not all three.)
Once you find the correct jurisdiction, date, and possibly even case number from various newspaper articles, you can go search through the original case files to find the valuable information you are seeking. Some of these files have been digitized and are available on FamilySearch.org. Others you will need to track down by contacting the court in question and asking where their archives are kept.
Note that GenealogyBank also has a category dedicated to court records, case files and legal news that can help you narrow your search.
I hope you take advantage of court records in your family history research. The information found therein is exceptionally beneficial. Using newspapers to aid your search can make the process much simpler and more likely to yield positive results. Happy searching!