Genealogy Today, by Betty Lou Malesky, CG
My Romance with Courthouses
I love courthouses, the older the better. I love walking up the stone steps in the shallows worn by thousands of footsteps before mine. I love opening the 10 foot high doors for the first glimpse into the dark, cool interior with its marble floors and huge marble columns. I love entering into the sanctuary of lawyers, judges and clerks of long ago, their footsteps echoing along with mine as I walk across the wide central lobby. I even love the security guards at the door these days, as I know they are protecting the documents I so want to find. If you've never been to an ancestor's courthouse, I urge you to take the plunge. For now just follow me.
I head for the Clerk's office on a mission to find another ancestor or two, maybe more, one never knows. As I enter the office the clerk looks up warily, another disruption in her busy day. I tell her I am doing research in the early records from 1790 to 1880. Relieved, she points to a door behind the counter, and says, "All the books are in there." Off I go, to my favorite inner sanctuary.
I love the smell as a huge ledger over 200 years old is opened for the first time in months, maybe the first time in years - the slightly musty smell of old paper and ink, faded now to brown. I love the clerk's perfect penmanship with which he transcribed my ancestor's records so many years ago, hard to read today as we are so unused to good handwriting.
I love deed books, and always search in them first. They tell me, "Yes, your ancestor was here, he left these tracks when he purchased land for the first time and every time he purchased land until the final deed of sale indicating he moved, usually further west, or perhaps when he died".
Deed books are full of treasure waiting for discovery. When an ancestor died without a will the deed book records the sale of his land. Each of his heirs were required to sign off their right to the land and agreement to its sale. Here I solved the problem of a 4th great grandmother who married in 1803 before marriage records were kept in the county. Since a woman's spouse was co-inheritor with her, both she and her husband signed the deed as heirs when her father died in 1825, definitive proof of their marriage.
In another courthouse, I solved the problem of parentage of a 2nd great grandmother born in 1830. Land inherited from her father before his death required the signature of all his children in 1848. Since she was a minor her name did not appear. BUT, tiny handwriting on the 3rd page of the deed indemnified the buyer from any claim by Polly Vosburg and her cousins, also underage whose parents had died earlier. It's always important to read those deeds.
I love the probate records found in courthouse. Besides telling when an ancestor died and who his heirs were, they often reveal a detailed inventory of his estate. If he had books you know he was literate. If he had silverware, china dishes, a looking glass, featherbeds, pillows and coverlets, several pair of britches, jackets, and boots, and rugs on his floors, you know he was prosperous. Often they even listed the amount of cash in his "purse. Most inventories list many items that provide clues to a man's occupation.
Most of all, I love the civil court records. An ancestor went to court for many reasons such as disputes with other family members and/or neighbors, issues involving land, guardianship issues, and most interesting, for a divorce. Divorce was an embarrassment and usually covered up within the family. Many times research will reveal a long-hidden divorce. A woman suddenly listed as a widow in a census may actually be divorced with a very-much alive husband. In addition to the complaint, divorce papers often include names and birth dates of children, income, residence, and/or other relatives' names and relationships.
Yes, I know the LDS has filmed most U.S. courthouse records until about 1900, but reading microfilm is just not the same as being in that old courthouse with the spirit of an ancestor hovering nearby. You haven't lived until you've been there yourself. Why not plan a courthouse trip and experience the past as I have.
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11 January 2012