Your Guide to Researching Your Family in Courthouse Records

The Records (on separate pages)

About Using Courthouse Records:


Franklin. Keys to the Courthouse (4 vols) (find in a library)

  • vol. 1 Jurisdictions
  • vol. 2 The Records
  • vol. 3 Unusual Records
  • vol. 4 Analyzing the Records

Rose. Courthouse Research for Family Historians: Your Guide to Genealogical Treasures , 2004
(Find in a library)

Audio Tapes: Do you still have a tape player?

Articles on the Web

Allen. Beginner's Guide to .... Courthouse Research.
Beginners Guide to Family History Research: Courthouse Records
Davenport. Courthouse Research: Satisfaction or Frustration.
Devin. Clues in the Courthouse. All About Town and County Resources
Library of Michigan. Genealogical Research with Courthouse Records
Marriage Dates (in the courthouse records)
Neill. Courthouse Lessons Learned
Rootsweb Guide. Court Records
Sperry. What to Do When the Courthouse Burns.
Morgan. Five Reasons it's not in the Courthouse
Morgan. How to Work with the Courthouse Staff.
Neill. Court Records. Finding Your Ancestors.
Pylant. Etiquette for Courthouse Research.
Rose. Your Visit to the Courthouse

Understanding the Courthouse Indexes

Indexing is tricky in courhouse records....

  • Some records are not indexed
  • Records that are indexed
    • may be at the beginning of each volume.
    • may be indexed in separate index volumes.
  • are usually not indexed by the names of all parties involved
  • Indexes that are in separate volumes often have a special organization that might not be immediately apparant to you.
  • If the recorder ran out of space he may continue the indexing on a page where he can find empty space. If the indexing goes to the bottom of a page, look carefully for a notation that indicates it is continued elsewhere.

Direct and Indirect Indexes

  • Some records may be indexed by only one name (a direct index)
  • There may also be a second index of the name of the other party (an indirect index. I've also seen this called an inverted index).

For example, an index by groom's name is a direct index, one by bride's name is indirect. You don't always get both. When you do get both, they may be in separate volumes, in two parts in a single volume or side by side in a single volume, for example with the left column alphabetical by groom and the right column in order by bride.

  • Marriages -- in this one brides and grooms are alphabetized in separate columns. Sometimes there are two separate index books or they are in separate sections of the same book.
  • Grantor Index -- the grantee of the transaction is named in the right column, but of course not in alphabetical order.
  • Appellant/Defendant

Arrangement of information in index volumes at courthouses.

At first glance you will assume it to be a simple alphabetical index. Usually it is not.

See the FamlySearch Wiki: United States Index Systems, which explains briefly each of the indexes you might find in a courthouse. (This Wiki also covers some indexing not usually found in courthouses).

How do you know which index is being used? Look at the front of the index book to find the company that produced it.

For a more thorough descripion, see Courthouse Indexes Illustrated by Christine Rose. (find in a library)

Here are a few examples of funny indexing:

  • Probate Index Smith Surname Onondaga Co., New York This groups all Smiths together and to make it easier to find the one you want by first name puts the first name in one of 5 columns. So if you have a first name of Thomas, you need only look down the P-Q-R-S-T column.
  • Here is another example of the grouping of first names that makes it easier to visualize.
  • Cott Index -- this explanation notes it is the most common system used for deed records. If you scroll up you see an illustration.
  • Russell Index -- Here is how the Russell index works in Beaver Co. Pennsylvania. It takes time to work with this one.
  • The numerical index for some land records -- here is an article that explains the index.

Published Indexes

  • Sampubco has published indexes for scattered counties. Many genealogy libraries have these indexes.
  • There are many published indexes to earlier court records in magazines or books.
  • Some courthouses, libraries, archives and historical societies now offer online indexes.

Locating and Contacting Courthouses

The old fashioned way!

Handybook for Genealogists (10th or 11th edition) and/or Ancestry's Redbook (you'll want the 3rd edition) includes information on what records can be found in the county courthouses, as well as providing contact information for the courthouse. But a newer book is on the market and I think I like it best for the clarity of presentation of courthouse information. It is The Family Tree Resource Book for Genealogical Research (find in a library)

Bentley. County Courthouse Book -- a directory of courthouses. Note it is about 10 years old. I wonder if it will be updated, since it is now so easy to find the information on the web.


  • Directory of U.S. County Courthouses (but lacks links to websites). With the address in hand, though, you can do an easy google search that includes the court title and zip code, e.g.googling "Genesee County Clerk" 48502 brings up the Genesee County Michigan County Clerk's website and "Genesee County Clerk" 14021-0379 brings up the link to the New York Genesee County Clerk. You may have to do some digging around to find the page you want.

  • Courthouse Direct includes addresses and links to home pages ("homepage" under the phone number ) of county governments, but you will have to do some click searching to find the webpages of the courts.

  • Free Public Records Directory takes you to a variety of resources for a county... some of the free are quite useful, but for some you will have to go to the home page for the county and dig around to find the page you want. Also, some of the links are for paid searches and will take you to a site that charges for the search.

Courthouse Etiquette

While good manners and professional demeanor are a given, there are a few special things to be aware of when doing research in a courthouse.

  • Respect the business of the courthouse. Staff must tend to important day to day matters; assisting with research in old records can not be their first priority.
  • Respect the rules. Better yet... know ahead of time what the rules are. See if there is a website with information.
    • Here is an example of Ogemaw County Michigan's Register of Deeds web page with information for the would-be visitor.
    • Not every court has a web presence and of those that do, the amount of information given varies. But it is worth the time to do a google search and see what you can learn.
  • For vital records you can usually find this out in the VitalRec website, which has information for each county as well as statewide.
  • Travel light -- books in courthouses are huge and there is usually not a lot of space.
  • If you take a laptop, have the battery charged -- there may not be a place to plug it in.
  • Treat the books with care and be sure to return each book to its proper place.


Return to Bobbie's Genealogy Classroom