Monday, November 5, 2012

Field Trip! Tips For Visiting a Courthouse

Public Service Announcement: Please vote tomorrow. It is your civic duty as a citizen of the United States. Don't forget, there will be a lot more on the ballot tomorrow than just the presidential race so make sure you are well-informed and read through the entire ballot carefully. I guess I need to tie this into genealogy somehow. One underused genealogical source are voter lists! You can pinpoint when and where your ancestor lived using county voter lists.

I was asked to speak at the Columbia County Genealogical Society's November meeting about courthouse research. I do almost none of my research locally so I wasn't very familiar with the courthouses around here. This coincided perfectly with an assignment I had for the National Genealogical Society's Home Study Course where I had to visit a local courthouse and write a paper about the marriage books held there. I made a trip to the McDuffie County Courthouse to kill two birds with one stone.

The sign at the corner

The courthouse from across the street

The Georgia Historical Marker detailing the formation of the county in 1870

Be aware that different records may be in different courthouses or sections within the courthouse
Who holds what records depends on the state. For example, in Mississippi marriage records are held by the circuit court but here in Georgia they are held by the probate court. A little research beforehand will save you some time and grief.

Know what records they actually have
Nothing is worse than making a trip to a courthouse to look for an 1851 marriage license and then find out the courthouse burned in 1890 with a complete records loss. Also, the courthouse may keep their oldest records off site in a storage facility. You will need to request them ahead of time. This is important to know especially if you are coming from out of town. In my case I was looking for the marriage books specifically. They have moved the probate court to the Thomson-McDuffie County Administrative Building down the road so I had to make a trip over there.

Know the rules
You need to know when the office is open, if they allow digital cameras, if they allow handheld scanners, if they charge for copies, if the clerk will help you find records or if you are on your own, etc.

Go out of your way to be nice to the staff
If you tick off the clerk, you can forget about getting any help. Nuff said.

Come prepared
Most genealogists that do a lot of courthouse research keep a bag packed with everything they need like paper, pencils, digital camera (with extra batteries) and change/dollar bills in case there is a copying fee. I wouldn't bring a laptop unless you know for sure the courthouse is okay with it. Many times there is a space issue. Better electronic options would be a tablet or smart phone (being the techno dinosaur that I am, I manage with paper, pencil and digital camera).

Read this book
I highly recommend Courthouse Research for Family Historians, Your Guide to Genealogical Treasure by Christine Rose. This book explains every kind of record you will find in a courthouse, some you probably didn't even know existed. You will also find explanations of the different types of courts, terminology and some internet sources for court records.

I got a bit of a surprise when I looked at the McDuffie County marriage books. The books were microfilmed by the Utah Genealogical Society in cooperation with the Georgia State Archives and the microfilm is available on Georgia's Virtual Vault. When they microfilmed the marriage books they missed Book 1. I thought that perhaps Book 1 had been lost/destroyed but there it was, safe and sound in the probate court. I have no idea why this book was missed.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis

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