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The prothonotary

The story is told of President Harry Truman being introduced to a prothonotary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and, in typical Trumanesque fashion, asking the question.

“What the hell is a prothonotary?”1

Old Wooden Fence At Green FieldA somewhat less elegant form of the question by reader Sam Jones, who was told that certain records he wants to see in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, are held by the Prothonotary there.

Sam could have found the answer he needed on Wikipedia, which says that the “word prothonotary is recorded in English since 1447, as ‘principal clerk of a court,’ from L.L. prothonotarius (c. 400), from Greek protonotarios ‘first scribe,’ originally the chief of the college of recorders of the court of the Byzantine Empire, from Greek protos ‘first’ + Latin notarius (‘notary’); the -h- appeared in Medieval Latin. The title was awarded to certain high-ranking notaries.”2

Or he could have found it at the website of the Pennsylvania State Archives, with some of the history of the term:

The prothonotary or chief notary is the officer responsible for maintaining the records of the civil division of the court of common pleas in each judicial district. These records relate to civil proceedings, divorce, equity and also include various types of reports filed by the county, municipal governments and school districts.

The 1682 Frame of Government made provision for the erection of county courts. … In 1707, Governor John Evans’ ordinance established two separate courts in each county – quarter sessions and oyer and terminer to hear criminal cases and deal with administrative matters, and common pleas to hear civil and equity cases. The term “prothonotary” appeared for the first time in this ordinance, and it was ordered that all writs and processes of the court of common pleas were to issue out of his office under the county seal and all returns were to be made to that office. A number of early laws defined the officer’s duties and responsibilities. Numerous laws were passed during the provincial period and in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries which continued this basic judicial structure on the county level with occasional jurisdictional changes. …

Before the 1701 Charter of Privileges, there was no clear indication how the clerk of each county court was chosen or his length of service. That document provided that each county’s justices nominate three people, one of whom would be selected by the governor to be “clerk of the peace.” This person also served as prothonotary when that office was established. The 1790 Constitution vested that power in the governor alone. It was not until the Constitution of 1838 that the office became elective with the individual serving a three year term, The Constitution of 1873 continued that practice, but a 1909 amendment increased the term to four years. …3

He could have found a basic definition in the law dictionaries: Black and Bouvier both define it as “The title given to an officer who officiates as principal clerk of some courts.”4

He could even have found a good explanation on the Luzerne County website, along with the Harry Truman story:

If you don’t know what the word “prothonotary” means, you are not alone. Apparently, United States President Harry S. Truman had the same question. A story has been often told that, in 1948, President Truman was introduced to a prothonotary in Pittsburgh and did not know what the term meant. Nearly 60 years later, the question still arises – what is a prothonotary?

The prothonotary is the Chief Clerk of the Civil Court. The word is of Greek origin, and it means “First Clerk.” The prothonotary’s office of Luzerne County is responsible for filing, storing, and distributing official civil documents. The prothonotary’s office also issues passports and maintains naturalization records. Pennsylvania is one of the few states in the United States which still uses the term “prothonotary” to describe its clerk of civil records.5

But we can all be glad he didn’t look at any of those places. Because then we wouldn’t have gone and read on.

“Few” states? Oh, yes, Luzerne County. “Few” states, for sure. As in two, to The Legal Genealogist‘s knowledge, Delaware being the other.

Where one of the official, set-in-stone-in-the-statute-books functions of the Prothonotary is to “issue a warrant, under his or her hand and official seal, to each of the fence viewers of the Prothonotary’s county, and notify the public of their appointment by as many advertisements, signed by the Prothonotary and posted in each hundred, as there are viewers therein.”6

Um… fence viewers?

Well, yes. Delaware law, see, provides that “The Superior Court shall annually appoint not more than 8 nor less than 5 persons in each hundred to be fence-viewers. The fence-viewers shall be the sole judges of the sufficiency of any fences, of the charges of making or repairing partition or other fences, and how borne, and of damages by animals trespassing.”7

Now a hundred is “a geographic division, smaller than counties and roughly equivalent to the division ‘townships’ in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Delaware is the only state which currently uses this division.”8

So every year in all 33 of Delaware’s hundreds, between five and eight people are chosen to go out and look at fences. For which task they are paid the princely sum of eight dollars a day (except for the chair of each hundred, who gets a whopping nine dollars) and seven cents a mile for travel.9

And that’s been the law in Delaware since at least 1852.

Which means, of course, there should be records…

Genealogy and the law. You gotta love it.


  1. Law Firm of Peacock Keller, “What’s a Prothonotary?,” Peacock Tales, posted July 2005 ( : accessed 7 July 2014).
  2. Wikipedia (, “Prothonotary,” rev. 30 Dec 2013.
  3. County Office Descriptions: Prothonotary,” Pennsylvania State Archives ( : accessed 7 July 2014).
  4. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 958, “prothonotary.” And see John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States of America and of the Several States of the American Union, rev. 6th ed. (1856); HTML reprint, The Constitution Society ( : accessed 7 July 2014), “prothonotary.”
  5. History of Prothonotary,” Luzerne County, Pennsylvania ( : accessed 7 July 2014).
  6. Delaware Code §2322.
  7. Delaware Code §1303(a).
  8. Hundreds in Delaware,” Delaware History, Research Guide, University of Delaware Library ( : accessed 7 July 2014).
  9. Delaware Code §1303(d).
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