Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Where are the Court Records?

Time to step aside from court procedure and talk about records. The basic rule is that court records can be found in the court. The trick here is following the jurisdictions which change from time to time depending on statehood, county boundaries, state boundaries, the number of federal court districts and many, many other factors. This is where you will have to read some history and learn about the government. For example, let's say you find out your ancestor was arrested, like one of mine, for unlawful cohabitation (commonly known as polygamy or uc). Where would you find the court file? First of all he lived in Utah so that is a start. Then he lived in Juab county so there is a further start. But wait, the counties and the state did not prosecute uc cases. So it also helps to know a little (a lot?) of history.

Uc cases were prosecuted in the federal district courts with federal court judges. So where are the records of the court back in the 1800s? This may take a while to find out. I found a webpage outlining the history of the courts in Utah from the Utah State Division of Records and Archive Service. I suggest starting with the courts themselves for newer cases, say the last 30 or 40 years, and with the various state archives before that time. Guess what? This isn't as easy at all. In fact, it turns out to be highly complicated and very difficult. There is a detailed chart showing the counties and the court jurisdiction during different time periods, which is very long. Older states, such as those in the eastern U.S. will likely be just as complicated or more so. Ultimately, I determined that the records were likely in the Southern Division of the Federal District Court and that the records were likely in the National Archives.

A visit to the National Archives site was even more complicated. It turns out that National Archives and Record Administration is moving ponderously into the digital age. They do have hundreds of thousands of digitized documents, but that is the subject of a whole book. I can just say, if there is a more complicated website search than trying to use the NARA website, I haven't seen it yet. Have faith, the records are there, they are just buried in layer upon layer of indexes and sub-indexes and searched by vague search terms. Fortunately, some of the records have been digitized by other entities. By chance, I found the record for my ancestor in now They had a digitized record of the entire court file. You might also try, and before spending your life learning how to do research in the National Archives. Here is where you start according to the NARA:
ARC contains some descriptions of archival materials that are genealogical sources. Please see ARC Guide for Genealogists and Family Historians for more specific information.

For more information about genealogical research at NARA, please see NARA's gateway for genealogists/family historians.
I need to make a distinction between case files and court records. Usually the term "cases," refers to reported appeals cases rather than all of the records in the case, which is of course very confusing. Reported cases are collected in huge series of books, now totally online. That is the good news, the bad news is that the most complete collections are in two huge (I mean really huge) databases called and Why is this bad news? A subscription to these databases costs thousands of dollars. Some libraries have access and you might try talking to an attorney or two or three and see if you could do a search. Believe me, it can cost into the hundreds of dollars to do one search.

More later.


  1. James, you are quite right about NARA's website searchability. I spent about 4 hours, unsuccessfully, trying to find the correct citation for one micropublication, which should have been simple: Civil War Pension Application files. I could not even find the full title of the application file database in question.

    As for "case files" and "court records", why would you not consider the case files part of the court records? Of course they are not the same as the Minutes Books, Order Books, and the myriad otherwise-titled record books kept by the sundry courts. The case files may contain submitted evidence (such as an original old will, or signed depositions), receipts, advertisements, executed writs, summonses and subpoenae and all manner of other goodies.

    As for the inaccessibility of opinions, not all are exclusively sequestered in the databases you name. I found one very useful one in a volume of Southeastern Reporter in googlebooks. You don't know unless you look -- which is what it's all about :D

  2. James, We are sorry that you had difficulty navigating our web site to find information about court records. You don’t mention in your blog if you tried our new online public access (OPA) search at in addition to our Archival Research Catalog. I would encourage you to try a few searches in OPA and let us know what you think at We built OPA using feedback from researchers, and we are always interested in hearing from more users of the site.

    In the new online search we included the digital content and the descriptions of our records you saw in our Archival Research Catalog as well as content from our web sites. The search results are grouped depending upon the type of information we have related to your search terms such as digital copies, descriptions of our records, and pages from our web sites.

    To help us with the monumental effort of digitizing our records, we are working with partners such as Fold3. Our digitization partners create the digital content such as what you saw on the Fold3 site and eventually that content will also be added to the National Archives’ site.

    I did a search using the search term “unlawful cohabitation.” There are descriptions of court records from the federal courts in Utah related to unlawful cohabitation, although we do not currently have any digital content (see The first search result is for Utah’s Territorial Case Files that were transferred to the U.S. District Court. I believe these are the records you saw on the site of our digitization partner, Fold3. Information about other Utah Federal court records is available in OPA at The original copies of the court records from the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah are at kept at the National Archives at Denver.

    I hope this helps with your research. Rebecca

  3. Geolover, We are sorry to hear that you had such difficulty finding the citation you wanted. We would be happy to help you identify the correct citation for the Civil War pension applications you seek. If you would like to send us the particular microfilm publication that you wish to cite, we will let you know what the full title is. Our email address is

    Part of the difficulty you encountered may be because the War Department created several series of files related to the pensions rather than one master series. The pension application series were created depending on the branch of service, whether the pension was granted or denied, or whether the service person or his spouse was applying for the pension. You can read descriptions of the various series of pension applications in our online public access system at