Many of the records genealogists view online began at their ancestors’ county courthouse. Wills, land records, marriage licenses, and divorce decrees are all created and filed in local counties. And there is so much more!
Here’s a handy list of records you can get, categorized by difficulty in retrieving:
Easy to Get
Because of property title insurance requirements, many Pennsylvania counties have digitized their property deeds. Unfortunately they may only go back to the 1970’s or so online, but the county Recorder of Deeds can quickly pull and send copies upon request. Many of these are also on FamilySearch.
Wills and Estate Filings
FamilySearch and Ancestry have both microfilmed, digitized, and indexed these valuable records for genealogists. In a will the spouse and children are listed, defining families explicitly. If your county is not online, contact the Register of Wills and the Clerk of the Orphan’s Court for copies of the entire probate packet.
Like wills and estate filings, marriages may be online. If not, they are worth the effort to obtain because they list the parents of both the bride and groom, as well as residence, occupation, and age.
Harder to Get
Not common until the 1970’s, and yet so valuable to genealogists. The Prothonotary Office holds the index of divorce decrees filed and granted in their county. Divorces were filed in the county where at least one of the couple lived, so start with their last known location.
Both the Declaration of Intention and Petition for Naturalization could be done through county courts until September 1906. Few of these have been digitized and put online, but indexes and original records are at the local county courthouses.
Delayed Birth Certificates
When Social Security began in 1931, many people couldn’t prove their age with a birth certificate to obtain a Social Security Number. Pennsylvania allowed citizens to file for a Delayed Birth Certificate either with the state or in the local county where they currently lived or in the county where they were born. The completed forms provide parents’ names, date and place of birth, and three witnesses to the persons identity. A genealogy gold mine!
Difficult to Get
Each fall the state of Pennsylvania required each county to collect local taxes. The counties delegated the tax collection to a local municipal tax collector. The tax collector recorded the head of household and also unmarried men of adult age. For families that did not own land, but rented or were indentured, this can be a way to locate them (no land meant no will or estate filing).
All kinds of life matters went through local courts. Disputes between neighbors, unpaid bills, crimes against property or people, and cases of mental illness – all went to court. Court records are so abundant that they are often put in off-site storage. Know your ancestors family, neighbors, and associates before you search them to get the most benefit.
Records at local county courthouses are valuable records for genealogists. While not always easy to get, the information they provide is worth the effort.
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