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Finding NC Court Records … it’s easy as 1-2-3.

Remember when you were a kid in school and the teacher asked a question you really really wanted to answer? You sat up as tall as you could, threw your hand in the air and practically danced in your seat whispering (sometimes in a stage whisper), “Me! Me! I know the answer!”

That’s pretty close to the way I felt when Mary Clement Douglass’ follow-up question to Tuesday’s blog on will caveats hit my inbox here at The Legal Genealogist:

I had a similar situation (to the Baker will contest) with the LWT of Simon Clement, April 1800, Granville County, NC. Simon had two wives with children by each. The younger family got the bulk of his estate and the elder children sued. I have a copy of Simon’s LWT, but have not been able to find copies of the court suit. Any suggestions?

So why do I really really want to answer this question? Because it gives me the chance to show off three of my all-time favorite genealogy resources, all at once. Together, they really do make finding North Carolina court records as easy as 1 – 2 – 3.


First, we need to know the story of Granville County after 1800. If another county was created from Granville before the case might be heard, that could well change where we need to look to find the records of the will contest. So in my own research, I usually fire up a fabulous bit of software called AniMap 3.0.2 County Boundary Historical Atlas from The Gold Bug. This is a mapping program (and a lot more) that starts with tracing the creation of every single county anywhere in America. You can get a download-only copy from Legacy Family Tree for $64.95 or the full version on CD from The Gold Bug for $79 plus shipping. A quick check through 1851 tells me there were no changes in the county lines, so unless there was land or other major assets elsewhere, we’re only looking at the courts of Granville County.

Second, we need to know more about the courts of North Carolina in and just after 1800. And oh man… are those of us with North Carolina ancestors lucky! We should all face North Carolina and blow a kiss in the direction of genealogist extraordinaire Helen F. M. Leary, CG, CGL, FASG, FNGS, for putting together the single best one-state genealogy guide I have ever seen.

Leary, North Carolina Research

The guide — Helen F. M. Leary, editor, North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local History, 2nd edition (Raleigh : North Carolina Genealogical Society, 1996) — is an absolute steal at $55. It’s a 620-page hard back volume and, in my experience, if it’s not in that book, you don’t need it to do research in North Carolina. There are chapters and chapters explaining the various courts, the cases they handled, and their records. Order directly from the North Carolina Genealogical Society (of which I am a proud member).

And what we discover is that although every county had its own County Court (called the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions)1 and, after 1806, its own Superior Court, there were District Superior Courts before 1806 that covered several counties. The one that included Granville County could also have heard the case.2

Turning again to the Leary book,3 we see that Granville was in the Hillsborough District, and “Hillsborough District Superior Court Records begin in 1768 and are very nearly complete — minutes, dockets, and records of cases are included.”4 And, of course, if the will was offered for probate after 1806, the will contest would likely have gone to the Granville County Superior Court if it wasn’t resolved in the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions (which had a monetary limit on what it could handle).5

Third, we now need to know where these court records exist. And for that, we turn to the website of Nirvana on Jones Street, otherwise known as the North Carolina State Archives in Raleigh. Under Links on the left hand side of the Home Page, there’s a listing for MARS Catalog. MARS is an acronym for Manuscript and Archives Reference System, “the online catalog for the North Carolina State Archives and the Outer Banks History Center” that “contains searchable descriptions of both archives’ holdings.”6

MARS catalog

Hillsborough District Superior Court Estate Records

So… let’s take the easy one first. Click on MARS Catalog, enter “Hillsborough District Superior Court” (without the quotes) in the Search Text box, and you get two pages of results. Skim through’ em, and on the second page… oh my. Boxes and boxes of records. Dockets. Civil Action Papers. Criminal Action Papers. Ejectments. And looky looky… Estates Records. Click on that entry and you see that there are 17 boxes of records involving the settlement of estates in that District between 1772 and 1806… arranged alphabetically by decedent. It’s enough to make a genealogist weep — with joy.

But what about the records of the County Court or the post-1806 Superior Court? These take a little more work to find, but only because the Search function is a little more complicated. Here are the steps from the Search form. (If you’ve already done one search, hit the Back to Search link and clear the search form by clicking on the Clear button at the bottom to the right of Search.)

The first thing you need to do is find the button to the right of the box reading Class, Collection, Series that’s labeled Browse. Click on that and a new page will appear with a list of record types. You only want to look at County Records, so click on the box with the plus sign (+) in front of County Records in the list. Click again on the plus sign box right under it to open the full list of counties. Scroll down and click in the blank box in front of Granville County.

Now you could click on the plus sign box in front of Granville County, and then click on the plus sign box to open the county record types, then choose specific record types (and click on more plus sign boxes to get sub-menus), but generally if it’s a county record I want to see all the options in that county at once. Wading through the sub-menus doesn’t seem worth the effort, frankly.

At this point, the box for “Granville County” should have a checkmark, and the boxes for “Alamance County … Yancey County,” “County Records” and “Mars” should all be green. Yes? Good! Now up at the top left, click on the Done link. That takes you back to the Search form. Enter Court in the Search Text box, click on Search and… oh my.

One hundred and ten pages of entries. Bonds and Minute Dockets and Appeal Dockets and Execution Dockets and so much more. Just the minute books for the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions are stunning — 24 volumes, chronologically arranged, starting June 1754 and continuing until the abolition of the County Courts in 1868. And if the will contest happened to be after the Granville Superior Court began operations, click forward to the second of the 110 pages, and there are literally dozens of records from that Court at the Archives.

And even better? You can order copies of documents by mail (online if you lived in North Carolina) with a $20 search and handling fee, and they’ll look for that court case record (provided you give them all the facts — the year, the court and the like). They’ll copy it for you if they find it (copying costs are extra). If you wanted to, you could even buy the microfilm of the court records and look through them yourself. The fee for that? It’s been raised recently. It’s all the way up to $19 a reel for 35mm microfilm — $20 to produce an original microfilm. Or they’ll scan records as 600-dpi TIFFs if you prefer. Four dollars a page for bound materials, a dollar a scan for loose papers and maps.

Best of all, and I can’t recommend this enough — take a trip to Raleigh. You won’t find a nicer, more cordial and helpful group of archivists anywhere. I have never ever encountered a single problem at the North Carolina Archives that an archivist wasn’t ready, willing and able to help solve, up to and including restaurant recommendations. (Ohhhhh… that barbeque joint… I’m drooling…)

Sigh… why couldn’t all of my ancestors have been from North Carolina????

Let us all know, Mary, what you find in those records!


  1. Raymond A. Winslow, Jr., “County Court Minutes,” in Helen F. M. Leary, editor, North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local History, 2nd edition (Raleigh : North Carolina Genealogical Society, 1996), 240-248.
  2. George Stevenson, “Higher-Court Records,” in ibid., 339-341.
  3. Winslow, “United States Census,” Figure 70, in ibid., 436.
  4. Stevenson, “Higher-Court Records,” in ibid., 341.
  5. See, for example, Laws of North Carolina, 1760, chapter I, section vi, Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, Vol. 25: 407; Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill ( : accessed 1 Feb 2012).
  6. MARS Home,” North Carolina State Archives ( : accessed 21 Jan 2012).
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