"Courthouse Research" Scary thought isn't it? Most of the time when you hear this word it conjures up thoughts of courtrooms, lawyers, divorce, probates, and of course, taxes! However, the good news is, it has a whole new meaning to genealogists! This place is a gold mine of recorded facts of the past!
Now, you must keep in mind that each county courthouse is a little different and so are their records. However, for the most part, each has marriage, birth, death, probate and military records . The best part is that they have deeds! That's right, deeds! Deeds hold all kinds of information. You can find wills, affidavits, family members and land records. You will even find court cases, oil/gas and mineral contracts and probates are all in the deeds department. Each one of these can be very important to your research.
Now, you're probably thinking, “Courthouses? No way, I’m not going in there!” Well, let me tell you how easy it really is!
First, you locate the county in which you lost track of the person you have been searching for. Then, you go to the courthouse and find the county clerk's office. It usually is on the first floor. All that I have visited have vault doors, except Grimes County, Texas, where they have them housed in portable buildings!
There will be a sign on the outside of the door that says "County Clerk’s Office". You walk though the door, go up to the counter and say, “I need to see the deeds”. They will point you in the direction of the records. Now, if you can just walk in and see the deeds room off to the side or though a swinging door or a side room, just walk on in. If someone stops you and asks if they can help you, just say, "I need to see the deed records" and keep on walking. Go back to the top for links to different types of files.
Now, I do want to give you a "heads up" on a few things about the deeds room. The books of indexes are large and heavy. Many weigh 10 pounds or more. After you take out a few, it feels like MUCH more!
Some counties have them on microfiche or microfilm, but you usually only find those in the larger cities. In almost all of the small counties you will have to use these large books. Second, almost all of the rooms are without chairs so you will be doing a lot of standing! A few may have stools and maybe a table with some chairs, but don't count on it.
Plus, the fact you’re always pulling out or putting heavy books back in the shelves, you will get a work out! This means dress appropriately and wear comfortable shoes! My aunt Dorothy, who is 72 years old, wears “fishermen sandals”, or her Earth shoes. As far as dress goes, there is no dress code, but remember, you are in the county courthouse. Best rule of all; dress comfortable, but no bathrobes please!
Have you found the deed index you want to look in? Well, go ahead and pull it out. Let us say you want to look for John Smith in 1870. Flip open the index to the S's. In the older books before the 1900s, they will have everyone with the last name starting with S.
The books will be divided on one side labeled with and the other side labeled REVERSE. One is for selling and the other for buying. If you do not notice this at first, you will, when you start reading the document.
But once you’re into the 1900s, most are broke up with just a few letters per book. Then inside of each book it is broken down even further with Sa, Sc, thru Sm, and so on. There will be an index in the front to tell you what page to turn to. Now if you have a name like Smith, then most of the time it will be continued in the X's or some other letter.
The index will tell you if it has been continued in another letter. So, pay close attention to the column by the letters to see if there is a name that has been extended somewhere else. Now you should have noticed in these later years that the books are now divided. One will be Reverse, and the other is Direct. Go thru both sets of indexes, as one could have a document that the other does not have.
There are a lot of columns with information on these pages. There are dates when the transaction took place. There is a column of what kind of document it is. There are columns for the names involved in the transaction. There is a column for the book and page number(s) to find the document in. Look at the document in Example 1.
If you will notice the column that states what kind of document it is. Most are for different kind of transactions for pieces of land. They also include heir-ships, wills, affidavits and patents. Sometimes, you will find someone you have looking for, plus the bonus of finding siblings, aunts, uncles, and maybe the great-great-grand parents. Then you can trace each one of them backwards or forward and find even more.
The heir-ship document lists people’s names (family members) who owned lands in the area, but sometimes they are one-sided. Watch for the word (ex parte) attached to the affidavit. That means their side of the family. You are probably thinking, aunts, uncles, and such. However, it means the father had more than one wife, so there are different sides to the children. This is a very interesting little fact to learn.
I have run across a notice of someone’s marriage in the deeds. Like I have mentioned before, deeds can be a treasure chest full of information. Back in the 1800s, everything was entered into the deeds records. I have found oil contracts and even an affidavit for someone’s piece of property, which one of my great grandfathers was giving testimony that a fence had been around the property for years. Just reading his words brought him back to life for a moment or two! Times like that beats looking at a census and just reading names.
All right, go ahead and go though the indexes and see if you can locate any name from your research. Write the book and page number down on your note pad. Try to go through as many indexes as you think you might find your relatives in. Remember to replace each book as you finish with it. Others will be using the books also!
Most deed rooms will have all the deed books on microfiche. If you’re at one that does, then all of the heavy books are behind you. Using the microfiche machines is pretty easy, just ask one of the clerks where the microfiche is located, how to use them and you're off and running! This speeds up looking at all of those documents in the books. However, sometimes the old documents (all hand written) are just too hard to read in one of these machines. If you are having problems reading them, just head back to the old trusty books.
Now, if you have to, or just want to, use the books in the deed section. Walk around until you find the volume number on the book and pull it out. Open the book to the page the index is listed on and read the document. I do want to mention that sometimes indexes only list one page, but in fact, the document can be several pages long. When you find a will in the deeds, they usually consist of more pages than the index states. If you find something you just have to get a copy of, make note of the book and page number and get a copy made. Remember what I told you earlier about copying!
One thing you will really enjoy is finding signatures of your relatives. I remember the first time I found my great-grandmother's signature, and then her mother's and father’s signatures. Those were great moments!
By now you should have an idea of what to do. Now work your way around the room and look in all the indexes. Probates can be very interesting. Look in the index for names. They are also in books like the deed indexes but with an added bonus. In the first column in the probate index book is a number. This number is for the probate packet... That's right, a packet! There will be some cabinets for the packets somewhere in the room. On the outside of each drawer will be numbers. Find the number that matches your packet, get it out and take a look at its contents.
Everything that is in the probate book is in this packet. In addition, sometimes there are receipts, bills of sale, and so on. Now if you do not find the packet, it just means someone along the way has walked out with it. Nevertheless, don't fret because the probate books have most of the documentation in them, minus the receipts.
Now if you've made it though the deeds, probate and court documents, you should have a pretty good picture of any land your family might have owned during the early years. Did you go through the oil and gas contracts? Did you find any contracts? If you do find any contracts, make certified copies and try to follow the contract out to see if you are in line for royalties.
Ok, question; have any oil companies ever approached anyone in your family line saying you might be in line to inherit royalties or anything such as this? But then you never heard from them again? Is there a family story of your relatives selling their mineral royalties in the past? Did they sell all the mineral rights? These records might help in answering these questions.
Just remember what I told you about the landsmen in the clerks office? They are there every day in almost all of the courthouses in Texas. They are constantly looking for owners or heirs to the minerals. Even if the land was sold, you still might have mineral rights. It could be YOU that the landsmen are looking for!