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Saturday, October 17, 2020

Finding Your Ancestors Using Court Records


Palace of Justice, Brussels, Belgium

Genealogists rely on a variety of court records for research beyond the popular census and vital record sets. Attorneys who practice law in the court system take years of study to master the complexity and language of the law and the court system so there is an advantage to those genealogists who also happen to be lawyers. How does the average genealogist deal with the pervasive "legal jargon?" The first major step is to improve your reading skills. Take the time to use a dictionary while reading. In the United States, the basic legal dictionary is called Black's Law Dictionary. Fortunately, the entire contents of the dictionary are online and free to use. Here is the link to the free online website: Here is a screenshot of some of the entries:

Of course, the edition used of Black's Law Dictionary is an old 2nd Edition but legal terms seldom change and genealogists are almost always looking at language in old documents. Just to know, the latest edition is the 11th edition. I have mentioned this in past posts during the time I was practicing law, I always had a copy of Black's Law Dictionary within reach of my desk. 

Legal documents are located just about everywhere in almost every town in the world. The main challenge in doing research, besides the language, is availability. Although the major genealogical websites have collections of legal documents, billions of others are still on paper or microfilm in individual storage areas from courthouses to warehouses. Here are a few of the types of documents you can look for:

  • Case files
  • Dockets
  • Indexes
  • Judgments
  • Minutes
  • Orders
  • Decrees
  • Wills and Probate files
  • Bonds
  • Guardianships
  • Inventories
But the list goes on and on. Law is divided into two main parts: Civil Law and Criminal Law. As little as we would like to know, some of our ancestors and relatives had criminal law issues so we must be aware of both. You might want to start with a book like this one:

Ventura, John. 2005. Law for dummies. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley Pub.

Something like this book might give you just enough insight into the legal system to help you do some valuable research. As an example, here is a screenshot of the Court subject for Utah in the Catalog.

There are some very useful free collections of court records online. One of the best in the United States is Google Scholar or It has a huge collection of both U.S. Federal cases and state cases that are completely searchable. For example, Here is a search for my name in court cases:

You might want to start by looking up some of your ancestors or relatives. You might be surprised. Meanwhile, to get started, search online for court records. You might also be surprised at what you find. 


  1. This site you recommended, I'm confused on how to use to look up a court case for my grandmother. Any help would be appreciated.