Even with all of the fantastic resources that are available online, there are still times when we need to go to the courthouse to research our family history. Since these trips usually don’t happen every day, we want to make the most out of our time there. Here are 5 tips to help you prepare for your genealogy trip to the courthouse.
1. Review Your Research
Which ancestors were in this county? Make a list of them, along with the time period they were in the area. (Many genealogy software programs have the ability to run a report based on place of birth, death, marriage, or residence.) Also, get familiar with what records were created for that area and when they started. You don’t want to go in thinking you’ll find an 1824 death record if they didn’t start keeping them until 1882. (Thanks, Indiana.) The FamilySearch Wiki is a good place to find this information.
2. Set Some Goals and Prioritize
What is it you’re trying to solve? You likely won’t be able to review all of the types of records that the courthouse has, start with the ones that are most likely to answer your question. If you’re trying to find who John’s parents were, start with the vital records (if applicable), then move to the probate records. I wouldn’t start with the tax records, as they are less likely to have the answer to that question.
3. See What’s Online Before You Go
The last thing you want to do — ok, among the last things you want to do — is go to a distant courthouse and spend time looking at records that you could have looked at online. See what’s been digitized (and research those before you go). Besides the big sites like Ancestry and FamilySearch, check the website of the different county offices, like the County Recorder. Also check the local public library’s website. BTW, when I say “online,” I mean the actual records, not just an index or an abstract.
That being said, be careful with those digitized images. If it’s something like a probate packet (loose papers), it’s possible something was missed. Although time probably won’t allow you to look up everything, you might want to look at the originals of things that could be a Really Big Deal with your research.
Also, look at what all is included in those digitized collections. For example, those probate records on Ancestry — did they just get the will books for that county or does it include the probate packets? Fill in the gaps when you go to the courthouse.
4. Ask for Advice
Each courthouse is different. Ask the local genealogy society for their advice in researching there. Some have research guides on their website. If not, contact them via email or on their Facebook page. Also look for Facebook groups for that area. People in the group might have suggestions for how to make the most out of researching there. Be sure to ask about parking! Ask if there is enough room to use your laptop and if there are outlets that you can use. Find out if you can use your camera to “copy” documents. If not, now much are copies?
5. Don’t Skimp on Copies
Don’t skimp on making copies, whether photocopies or digital images (if the courthouse allows those). There’s a law of genealogy: The farther away the repository, the more likely you’ll need a copy of the document that you opted not to copy while you were there. If you can take photos of the documents, do it! If you can’t, then bring cash, as some courthouses won’t accept credit cards for copies.
What’s your favorite way to prepare for a courthouse research trip?