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Hint: It’s not a bird…

It’s institute time!

The Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research, now under the aegis of the Georgia Genealogical Society, is in its second day at the University of Georgia, and The Legal Genealogist is up to her eyebrows in advanced methodology and evidence analysis.

Eager students from across the United States and one foreign country — St. Kitts — have gathered at Athens to study, learn and network, and I’m honored to be coordinating the advanced course and helping out in others.

Which means time is in short supply, so let’s add one more entry in the 2019 legal alphabet soup. We’re up to the letter P, so today’s word is…


Um… Prothonotary, yes, but not that prothonotary. That’s a prothonotary warbler.1 The one we’re after is a court officer.

The basic definition comes from the law dictionaries: the “title given to an officer who officiates as principal clerk of some courts.”2

Some courts.


As in two, today. Pennsylvania and Delaware.

The Pennsylvania State Archives gives us 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

And in Delaware, the statute says: “The prothonotary of each county shall be the clerk of the Superior Court in and for that county.”4

So… not a bird. Not a plane. Not even Superman.

But one of the key people we need to know for county-level court research in Pennslyvania and Delaware.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “2019 alphabet soup: P is for…,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 23 July 2019).


Image: Melissa McMasters, via, CC-BY-2.0.

  1. See Melissa McMasters, “Prothonotary warbler,” 2018, ( : accessed 23 July 2019).
  2. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 958, “prothonotary.”
  3. County Office Descriptions: Prothonotary,” Pennsylvania State Archives ( : accessed 23 July 2019).
  4. 10 DE Code § 521 (2016).
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