Finding the records means knowing the court
A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but having forty-‘leven names — depending on the jurisdiction — for one key court creating one key set of records isn’t a sweet thing for genealogists to deal with.
The record set at issue: probate records.
And the problem: finding the right court, particularly when the particular jurisdiction we need isn’t digitized or even microfilmed.
And — trust The Legal Genealogist on this one — not all probate records have been digitized or even microfilmed.
So… a quick primer in court names when it comes to finding those pesky undigitized unmicrofilmed records in that genealogical road trip.
Yes, some jurisdictions did call the court that handled probates and estates and guardianships and probate issues of all kinds the probate court. With or without capital letters. When, for example, Terilda Eatman chose Thomas Eatman as her guardian in Greene County, Alabama, on 16 January 1854, it was recorded at “a Probate Court held in and for the County of Greene.”1
But if you look for exactly the same kind of record in Georgia, you won’t find it in a probate court, or court of probate. In Georgia, the court that handled that sort of thing was the Court of Ordinary. When, for example, Robert Smith was appointed administrator of the estate of James Kell in Gilmer County, Georgia, in July of 1848, the bond he entered into (his promise to do the job properly) was to the Justices of the Inferior Court when sitting for Ordinary Purposes — also known as the Court of Ordinary.2
If you want to see the records of an estate fight over whether an administrator did the job right and the bond should be forfeited in Delaware, you wouldn’t look to the Probate Court or the Court of Ordinary. In Delaware, you’d look to the records of the Orphans Court. That’s where, on 31 January 1831, Thomas Green of Kent County went into court and said that he’d signed a bond as security for Kemmel Godwin on the estate of Henry Godwin, and Kemmel was doing a lousy job.3
Try looking for administration bonds here in my home county of Middlesex, New Jersey, and you won’t find them in a Probate Court or a Court of Ordinary or an Orphans Court. Nope. We have to be different here (and in New York, too): our probate matters are and have always been handled by the Surrogate, and the court here is the Surrogate’s Court. That’s where, on 11 February 1862, Jane Gibbons gave her bond for the estate of James Gibbons.4
And the same type of record in early North Carolina? It would have been recorded in the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions — the plain vanilla county court — starting in 1775.5
So — one key tip when it comes to doing probate research: don’t get hung up on the name of the court. It’s going to be different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
But here’s the single most important tip I can give you when it comes to finding the right court for probate records: don’t ask me.
I can’t give a 50-state list of court names here, and most of the time I’m not going to remember which state has which court.
So before I go on a road trip, I always always always reach out for the genealogical society or genealogical librarian in the county where I’m headed. I ask the local folks what court handled estates and guardianships and probates — and where the records for my time period are today. I also ask if the local folks have put together indexes or abstracts of probate records that I can use to try to find the originals when I’m at the courthouse.
Knowing those key facts from the people closest to those records saves a lot of time and a lot of headaches in the long run.
And helps the court names smell a little sweeter.
- Greene County, Alabama, Probate Minute Book K: 1 (16 January 1854); digital images, “Alabama Probate Records, 1809-1985,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 20 Nov 2017). ↩
- Gilmer County, Georgia, Administration Bond, Robert Smith, Administrator of Estate of James Kell, 3 July 1848; digital images, “Georgia Probate Records, 1742-1990,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 20 Nov 2017). ↩
- Kent County, Delaware, Orphans Court file, Estate of Henry M. Godwin (1831); digital images, “Delaware Orphan Court Records, 1680-1978,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 20 Nov 2017). ↩
- Middlesex County, New Jersey, Administration Bonds Book A: 1; digital images, New Jersey Probate Records, 1678-1980,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 20 Nov 2017). ↩
- See Helen F. M. Leary, editor, North Carolina Research; Genealogy and Local History, 2nd edition (Raleigh: North Carolina Genealogical Society, 1996), 334. ↩