Marleta Childs
P. O. Box 6825
LUBBOCK, TX 79493-6825

     American legal records, including those for the colonial or territorial eras, are invaluable tools in the study of genealogy. But because they can be under federal, state, or local jurisdiction and vary by name in different areas, they can be difficult to locate. As a result, one of the best sources for proof of relationships and people’s actions is often ignored by family researchers. To help people make sense of the complexity of legal materials and, therefore, become able to find and utilize them, Wendy Bebout Elliott has compiled Court Records. The most recent addition to the popular “Genealogy at a Glance” series, the guide follows the standard format of condensing her expertise about these fundamental resources into four laminated pages.

     In her “quick facts” section, Elliott furnishes some background data concerning American legal documents. Because county courts heard most cases, it makes sense that these local courts usually hold the material of most interest to genealogists; however, some older court records have been transferred to regional, state, or federal repositories. Some court records have been microfilmed or digitized for accessibility to researchers who cannot travel to the site.

     Next, she briefly discusses the four basic types of legal cases: probate, civil, criminal, and equity (which involves disputes between individuals). She then provides an overview of the sorts of transactions that affected the lives of our forebears. Such actions may include marriage, adoption, divorce, naturalization, apprenticeship, probate, business, care of the poor, and arguments over land and property. Because of the wide assortment of proceedings, court records may range in format from minutes, judgments, appointments, and petitions to case files, dockets, lists of jurors, and coroner’s reports. To aid genealogists in dealing with the volume of the records, Elliott explains several research strategies.

     Because probate records are among the most valuable resources for family research, Elliott describes them in more detail. In her discussion of non-probate court records, she focuses on land, naturalization, and adoption. To use legal records successfully, she also points out that building a knowledgeable base includes learning the history of the areas where your ancestors lived, since creation of new counties and changes in jurisdiction can affect research options. Comprehending the meaning of legal terms and phrases is also essential. Scattered throughout the text are quick research tips and suggestions for further reference.

     Under “Sources,” the compiler tells about intact court registers, published works, the use of supplementary data to replace lost or destroyed records, court indexes, and selected online records. In addition, she supplies the name and contact information for several major repositories.

     The field of American legal material is immense and intricate. Yet the wealth of facts about the lives and relationships of our ancestors contained in the documents is huge. By funneling such a vast amount of complicated information into four concise sheets, Court Records will be welcomed by many genealogists as a helpful addition to their personal research libraries.

     To the guide's price of $8.95, buyers should add the cost for postage and handling charges. For U. S. postal mail, the cost is $4.50 for one item and $2.50 for each additional copy; for FedEx ground service, the cost is $6.00 for one copy and $2.50 for each additional item. The guide (item order 1626) may be purchased by check, money order, MasterCard, or Visa from Genealogical Publishing Company, 3600 Clipper Mill Rd., Suite 260, Baltimore, MD 21211-1953. For phone orders, call toll free 1-800-296-6687; fax 1-410-752-8492; website

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