LOCAL COURTS ADMINISTER AND GENERATE COUNTY LAWS
November 14, 2010
If a family lived in a county for very long they undoubtedly appear in court records. Few people fail to appear in these important records.
Local courts administer and generate the laws of the county. Its records bring people together. In past times, the quarterly court sessions became a social occasion complete with partying. Even today, on Monday morning many people go to the courthouse for jury duty. There are many other functions of the court such as deed registration, filing of wills and probates, tax payments, and record auditing to name a few. To find your people in court records may not be easy. You may have to dig because indexes and court dockets do not disclose the names of everyone involved within the record.
Probate and guardianship records are among the most important records when searching in person in the courthouse. Many are on microfilm owned by the Family History Library, but not always. Case files may include anything from court minutes, receipts, guardianship files, photographs, marriage certificates, and deed copies for all records regarding litigants. The court creates minutes, orders and judgments involving a complainant in order to keep a record of everything regarding each case until its final resolution. These loose records, usually produced in writing in the older records, are kept together in a box or file and referred to as case files. In one of these boxes is where I found hundreds of loose papers involving the adult James A. Burns who was a guardian of the court.
The Cooke County Court appointed the sheriff as James’ guardian of his property, possessions, and care and schooling of the minor children and the welfare of the widow. The recording of his guardianship began in the first term of the court following James’ incarceration and continued until his death. From these records, I found out about his medical problem, personal problems, children’s names born after the 1870 census was taken, the date and place of death, casket cost, burial clothing, and the closing of his records, etc. The only thing missing from this detailed record is the place of burial.
From there I began looking at his intestate estate, which also began in the first term of the court following the death. Because he did not leave a will, the court appointed an administrator to disperse of James A. Burns’ estate. The administrator must follow the letter of the law. Usually a family member is appointed as the administrator, but in James’ case a male with the surname Burns was appointed to both administer the estate and be guardian of the minor children and widow. At that time, I did not know the relationship between the deceased and the administrator. Normally, the administrator is appointed in the following order: spouse, one of the adult children, parents, grandparents, brothers or sisters, uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, great-uncles, great aunts, first cousins, creditors or anyone competent and creditable. He posted a bond equal to the assets of the deceased, faithfully perform his/her duties and protect the widow and heirs. Was the administrator related to my family?
James’ inventory of his estate was in the file. He had many books, tools, cattle, horses, swine, linen goods, pewter, beds, etc. The court decreed the manner for the personal and financial care of the family. The administrator, as did the guardian, followed the common procedure sanctioned by the court of periodically selling land and animals to support James’ family.
The administrator presented a written account of all actions for approval of the court. The guardianship of the minor children continued until the females married or reached the age of 18, or the males became 21. The courts considered females adults after they married regardless of their young age.
Probate case files are more reliable than records such as census records. I hope searching for loose papers in the case files in the musty basements of old courthouses, becomes a necessary tool for finding and identifying your family members. These are invaluable for their wealth of information.
Brenda Kellow has a bachelor's degree in history, teaches, and lectures on genealogy. Before retiring to publish her family’s histories in 2007, Brenda held certification as a Certified Genealogist and as a Certified Genealogical Instructor. Send reunion announcements, books to review, and genealogy queries to: TracingOurRoots@gmail.com.