I fear that many of today’s genealogists feel they can find the information they need for their family trees while sitting in the comfort of their computer chair. While technology advances are being made every day in the area of genealogy, I still feel it’s important to get out of the house and into the field! Cemeteries, church offices, libraries, archives, history centers – there are many venues for research. But one of the most important, in my opinion, is the county courthouse.
Every courthouse has a county clerk’s office – and every clerk’s office has a wealth of information. Marriage records, wills, and deeds are the standard records kept there. Each clerk’s office is a bit different. Each will have some records another may not keep – or may have sent to the archives. Although I have visited several county clerks in Virginia, Missouri, Illinois and Iowa, most of my research has been in the county clerk’s offices of Kentucky – in the surrounding counties to my home.
Garrard County has a very nice courthouse. The people are very friendly and helpful. Other than your normal finds, Garrard County has boxes of estate papers. They are at the very top next to a high ceiling. You must climb a rolling ladder – as seen in old libraries – to reach the boxes. It’s a little treacherous the first few times – the ladder rolls a bit while you’re making your way to the top! – and it’s hard to hold the metal box and climb back down! But the amount of information found makes up for any fear of heights!
Lincoln County, one of the three original Kentucky counties, has less information available than any other county I have visited. Perhaps much of their information has been sent to the archives in Frankfort. I found it difficult to research there – even all the marriage records were not readily available.
In Nelson County the county clerk’s office is not in the courthouse, but in another building close by. I think room at the courthouse ran out quite a few years ago (now they have a new one, the old one – in the center of the town square – now being used as a tourist center). The old records are in the basement. This area is manned by volunteers – and if they are not there it is difficult to reach some of the old records since they are in a locked room.
Marion County, my home county, has a different dilemma when it comes to their records. Confederate General John Hunt Morgan burned the courthouse, along with the railroad depot, a hotel and several residences, on July 5, 1863. The only marriage records that exist before that time were those at local churches.
I saved the best for last! Washington County Clerk’s Office has the most abundant amount of information I’ve ever found in any county courthouse. Let’s set the scene – you walk in the front door and ask to look at the old records. You are directed to the back room, in the corner of which you see steps that disappear. To get to “the dungeon”, as I call it, you must travel down a narrow, winding staircase! I love it! It smells a bit musty as you descend. There are small windows at the top of the walls – that desperately need to be cleaned – that let in only a small amount of light. But you don’t notice that – you see only the wealth in front of you – marriage books, will books, deed books, school records, tax records – I could go on and on.
When I first went to Washington County, almost 40 years ago, Miss Olive Walker volunteered in “the dungeon”. She helped find your marriage record or whatever you were in need of. She was probably 65 and very protective of the records. And if she liked you, she gave you more information. I don’t know if it was because of my youth and enthusiasm, but she took me under her wing and let me have the run of the place. Miss Olive had filing cabinets full of family folders – I believe this was information she had found throughout the years. She shared this with me. How I miss those days! And I especially miss her!
Years after Miss Olive passed away, I asked one of the clerks about a marriage record and the parent consent that accompanied it. She said, “Oh, that’s in the next room in the basement – let me unlock it for you.” I couldn’t believe my ears – there was another room? She let me in and I found boxes and boxes of original marriage records and consents, original wills, court cases – a room full of shelves holding boxes of records. From then on when I came in I asked them to unlock the door, which they did. It has been simply an abundance of information for me – especially since both my parents’ families were in Washington County since 1818 or before.
More and more, Kentucky courthouses are sending the original records to the archives in Frankfort. It is as much a safety issue as it is a storage issue. But copies of the original records of your ancestors are a valuable source of proof for your genealogy research.