University of Michigan Law Library

Records of Genealogical Value

in a Law Library

The picture to the left is the University of Michgan Law Library, where I've happily worked for over thirty years. The University of Michigan Law Library is one of the top law libraries in the country, so much of what I've learned working there will apply to large, academic libraries or state law libraries. Small practitioner oriented libraries are not likely to have much of the historical material I describe below.

The University of Michigan Law Library restricts access to those who need to use the materials unique to that library. You will have to apply for a pass, but if you need to use the materials in the Library, you will qualify. At UMich Law all books must be used in the library and you must either be affliated with the university or present on-campus to use any electronic resources. Web pages and the catalog can be accessed from anywhere.

Web site of the University of Michigan Law Library
University of Michigan Law Library Catalog

Biography * Statutes * Trials and Court Decisions * Treatises * Reference *


Statutes There are two types of statutes of interest to the genealogist.

  • General Acts.... concerning the whole jurisdiction, e.g. laws about divorce, immigration, debt, inheritance, land transfer.
  • Special and Local acts ... concerning a single instance, named people or specific only to a portion of the locality, e.g. early name changes and divorces, authorizations to build something, formation of a specific township or village.

U.S.Statutes at Large (includes private laws)
Henings Statutes at Large (early Virginia statutes)
Public and Special Acts Connecticut (see the index to private & special acts)

an example of using statutes to learn about guardianship law in New Mexico

Trials and Court Decisions

Trial level: It is unlikely that anything is published. If you are lucky beyond belief, you may find:

  • broadsides (contemporaneous with the trial); examples
  • newspaper accounts -- contemporaneous
  • published transcripts or other records-- ususally contemporaneous
  • court reports from a trial level court, usually from the nineteenth centry; usually self published by the reporter. Very uncommon. Examples of a few that exist include:
  • publishe books that recount the trial -- usually years later, based on research; examples
  • Fall River Outrage

Chancery or Equity Cases: various courts might be designated to hear chancery or equity cases, which often involved personal matters, not clearly covered by law. Judgement was based on fairness rather than a strict rule of law. Chancery cases might include divorces, debts, estate matters, disputes between neighbors and other matters not appropriate to the strict rule of law, or for which there was no applicable law. For examples, see:

Library of Virginia (database index of over 190,000 cases): Each of Virginia's circuit courts created chancery records that contain considerable historical and genealogical information. Because the records rely so heavily on testimony from witnesses, they offer a unique glimpse into the lives of Virginians from the early 18th century through the First World War.

Some chancery records have been indexed online, but for the most part you will have to track down the court records in the area you are searching. Some records have been published, but published chancery decisions often present few facts and little testimony; it is preferrable to see if the original records are still exant.

Appeals level: Very, very few cases are appealed, but when a case is appealed to a court of record, the decision of that court is published (not a transcript) as a court report. Appeals are based on points of law and the litigants do not go to court. The lawyers submit briefs and may take testimony or include other documents that are submitted to the court.


Books that help you understand the laws, especially historically. Examples

Reference Books

Blacks Law Dictionary