Facing your dread of courthouse research

Darwin Fear Face_Fear of the CourthouseYou hear rumors that courthouses can yield ten times what you’ve learned about your ancestors from online sources. Ten times! But still you don’t go. “I’ll get around to that,” you say to yourself. “Let me just check one more database.” Well, friend, it’s time to overcome your dread. Pack your laptop and hit the road to a place where Wifi rarely goes. I dare you. I double-dog dare you to face your dread of courthouse research. You’ll thank me.

A million excuses

The Bibb County Probate Annex is only an hour east of here in Centreville, Alabama — a beautiful rural drive. From here to there, I hit not a speck of traffic. The probate annex is right there on the town square, so easy to find.

A statue of my great-great-grandfather Jacob Mayberry sits in front of the main courthouse, which assures me I’m bound to find family treasures there. So why have I lived in Tuscaloosa for 13 years and only spent my first day in that archive last week?

We have so many excuses. Oh, we plan to go … someday. But we want to exhaust all our online sources first, right? And courthouses are only open during our regular working hours, so we’d have to take a day off. And we don’t know anything about that courthouse. They might not let us in. What if they don’t have anything? The clerks might be mad I’m disturbing them. What if they think I’m stupid?

But let’s get down to the real problem. We’re afraid of what we don’t know. And way too many of us don’t know courthouse research.

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The courthouse, as stranger

We’re so comfortable with our online databases because we’ve spent time with them. We learned to use them in private — no clerk looking over our shoulder. We now know how to find the database treasures — and we can get to them any time of day or night, in our pajamas!

But a courthouse. There are courthouse-type people there. People guarding the data. They might offer you no help. And you’ll be right there in front of them as you show your ignorance. You might not even really know what you’re looking for. What records does a courthouse even have? And how do those places work? You might feel like a fool in front of people.

So let’s just get that fear on the table and deal with it. Because there is a chance you’re going to find yourself in an unfriendly courthouse where your access is blocked unless you know exactly what you want, and then you fill out forms and wait.

Or so I’ve heard. To be honest, I’ve never had a courthouse treat me that way. And if they do, they do. Take it like a grown-up, and figure out how you’re going to get what you need.

Those courthouse-type people I mentioned . . . . Guess what? They’re just people. Possibly tired, overworked, underpaid people, admittedly. Perhaps annoyed by genealogists who show up expecting them to do more work. And no doubt burned by a genealogist or two who stole records or left the place a mess. But people, just the same.

And you? You’re not that genealogist who comes unprepared. You’re not lazy. And you take meticulous care of their records. You are respectful of their time and environment. You’re the one who is going to make even the crustiest courthouse clerk like us all again.


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Go prepared . . .

You want to make the best use of any visit to do courthouse research. And the farther away it is, the more expensive the trip. You don’t want to waste a minute of your time there. Do this:

  • Harness the information online sources offer, to a reasonable degree.
  • Become familiar with your ancestors’ names from that county, so you quickly recognize them as you scan indices.
  • Come armed with questions you want to answer about them.
  • Learn what you can about the courthouse by checking them out online and by asking fellow genealogists about their experiences there.
  • Take quarters, if there are parking fees.
  • Take your laptop and a scanner (cell phone scanner apps can work), or take money for copies.
  • An extension cord and your charging cords for laptop, cell phone and other battery-powered devices.
  • And a good old-fashioned notepad and pen never hurts.

Go broad . . .

If you’re going to the courthouse for one specific thing, easy. You tell the clerk what you need, and they tell you where it is. You look for it. Find it, don’t find it, but you walk out having done the deed.

But if your ancestor lived there, and the courthouse lets you roam the stacks, go broad. It’s the tiny things that fill out your story.  Start with the basics:

  • Marriage licenses, bonds, certificates
  • Deeds
  • Estate papers

But then start looking around for things you didn’t even know to ask for. Here are a few I found at the Bibb County Courthouse:

  • A drawer of index cards where someone had extracted the names from many of the probate court records, telling you exactly where to look for each name in the floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with huge red leather books.
  • A file cabinet filled with miscellaneous wills — not in the big red books, for reasons unknown.
  • A stack of books about the county, some of which I’d never seen.
  • Minutes of the “Administrative Court,” that mentioned my ancestors on every other page, in little snippets as they came to court to handle each little piece of paperwork related to deaths, estates, and guardianship.

Go humble . . .

I hate to ask for help. Maybe I’m afraid I’ll look dumb. Or maybe I’m afraid they’ll take me directly to something, and I’ll miss a thousand things all around it. (Browsing rocks!) Perhaps I’m afraid they’ll notice me for the first time and say, “Hey, you have to fill out a form to see those records.” Or worse, “You’re not supposed to be back here.”

But there is no telling what you might find, if you just ask.

At the Bibb County Probate Annex, I found a booklet that indexed marriages. But the index referred to Box A, Box C, etc., and there were no boxes in the research room. The many red books labeled “Marriages” did not match this index.

So I sucked it up and asked.

The helpful and kind clerk said, “Oh those are in the basement. Just make sure you turn the light back off when you come up.”

There was a basement? I flipped on the light and went down to another floor filled with records. What would I have missed if I had failed to ask? TONS.

That was the first time I went. The second, I asked if they had the earlier deed records — waiting to hear them say that the courthouse had burned. But they didn’t. They pointed to another room, behind a foot-thick vaulted door. It will take me months to log all the deeds I found for just one of my family names in that town.

But most importantly, just go . . .

Even as I tell you how to prepare, I’m giving you an excuse to put off the trip. You can prepare forever. So let me say this. Just go.

The more times you visit a courthouse, the more comfortable you’ll get. Just like you learned to get what you want from online databases, you’ll learn to get what you want from these treasure houses. Know that it will be awkward the first time you go to any new venue, like meeting a stranger. Make the effort and make that stranger your friend.

I double-dog dare you.


GEG_Single Wrap

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4 thoughts on “Facing your dread of courthouse research”

  1. My worst courthouse experience was 5 years ago in Texas, where you had to fill out a form for what you wanted (and I didn’t know what I wanted even though I am experienced at courthouse research). And the people acted like they were doing me a big favor. Worst of all, copies were $25 for each document. Now I think they are on ancestry.
    My best experience was when I was first starting, at the courthouse in Hamilton County, Kansas, looking at land records and having no clue what I was doing. At first the recorder of deeds was a little short with me. But I persisted in being really, really nice. I was there a week, and the last day she stayed late so I could finish. She said, “I have other work I can do”; and then she drove me back to my motor home because it was getting toward dark. She printed off several pages on how to understand “Section, Township, Range” descriptions, and helped me find exactly where my ancestor’s land had been — and printed several pages of the homestead rules. All in all, a great experience for a beginner. I took flowers to the two on my way out of town as a way of saying thank you. They were shocked!

    1. Wow! A very lucky episode on the second. I’ve been to three new courthouses this week, and all were open access. One had no chairs high enough for the counters. I think it was a hint. 😉

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