This page was created by the late Bill Darnell.
Researching in Tennessee Courthouses
Edgar D. Byler, III
(Used with permission)
This paper was presented to the 10 September 1995 meeting of the Society at the Court Room, Wayne County Courthouse, Waynesboro, Tennessee.
I am often surprised when people ask me about what records are available in the courthouse. Anyone researching their family history should make the local county courthouse their second stop after talking to living family members. Many first timers and s easoned researchers are often disappointed when they visit the courthouse. They really don't know where to look for the records they need. And the seasoned researchers often don't know about obscure records that may contain the information they seek. T herefore I put this program together to provide some information about the various records groups in Tennessee County Courthouses. It is certainly not complete because some counties have differing records and have named their records with various names. But it will provide you with the general records groups and their locations in the courthouse. I've also addressed some of the more obscure records which can provide additional information.
First, before you hop in your car and head to the county seat, it would be wise to familiarize yourself with the records that are available in that particular courthouse. You can do this at home be ordering the Inventory of Microfilmed County Records for the specific county from the Tennessee State Archives. Before ordering, first write to the Public Service Section, Tennessee State Archives, 403 7th Avenue North, Nashville, TN 37243-0312, and request a list of the inventories and their costs. The inven tories will be xeroxed when you order; the state has not published them in many years. When you get the copy of the county inventory, take a while to study it and find out what records have been microfilmed. This will provide you will a fairly good index to the records and their location in the courthouse.
Next, contact the Tennessee Historical Commission, 701 Broadway, Nashville, TN 37203 and request a list of the County Historians for each county in Tennessee. While not all counties have active county historians, some do and with proper contact they can provide you with a wealth of material and assistance.
Finally, before you head out to the courthouse, check your local library and see what books have been published on that specific county. If your library doesn't have anything in print, have the librarian request through interlibrary loan a listing of pub lished and unpublished material from the Tennessee State Library. As part of the Information Superhighway, the State library has developed a computer sy stem which catalogues all available material in most libraries in the State of Tennessee. This includes manuscript collections. I don't have the complete information on the system at this time, but your local librarian should be able to obtain a synopsi s for you. Or you can contact the State Library directly.
Now you're ready to head to the county seat and begin your work at the courthouse. But are you really ready? No. There are two more important things you need to do. First contact the courthouse, either the tourist office or the County Executive's offic e, and find out when the Courthouse and its offices are open. Nothing can be more disappointing than to drive two hundred miles only to discover that the courthouse, libraries and most businesses are closed. Wayne County courthouse closes at 12:00 noon on Wednesday and Saturday although the Clerk and Master's office is open on Wednesday all day. In Lawrence county, the courthouse is closed on Thursdays. Contacting the Courthouse will give you an opportunity to get the hours of operation, to determine whether or not there is a county archives, separate and apart from the courthouse, and to request information on road maps, lodging and restaurants. Now you're ready to head to the court house!
When you get to the courthouse you are going to find that the records you need to research are scattered throughout several different offices, record rooms and broom closets. I would recommend that your first stop is the county historian's office, if he or she has one. Sometimes the county will provide office space to an active county historian, while in another courthouse no one will even know who the county historian is. If the county has an active county historian, please pay that office a visit fir st to help you get your orientation and to find out what assistance the historian can provide. The office may already have a file on your family or the particular surname you are researching; or the historian may refer you first to a local library where there are f iles of information on your family. This can save you an immense amount of time and can be done by mail or telephone before you actually arrive. Nothing can be more depressing than to spend a fruitless day at the courthouse searching for an ancestor, on ly to find out at closing time that so and so had done a book on that family and the book was in the library, which was also just closing!
Now let's get down to the real dirt! And I do mean dirt, because all the county records I've ever handled are dirty! I would recommend that any researcher begin with the Registrar of Deeds office. Here you will find all the records books covering land title and registration, along with other records of permanent registration. No matter what has happened to the courthouse in the past: fire, pestilence and flood, the deed records generally survive when everything else is destroyed. People value their land record s above all else. Which is an interesting comment on what not only we, but our ancestors considered important.
When you first enter the registrar's office, locate the original entry books. The original entry book will record the first step in the process your ancestor would have used to acquire land from the State. Not all of these entries will be recorded in a particular county especially if it were created from an older county. And here it becomes important to know that there are widely different laws governing land entry in Tennessee depending on your counties location. When North Carolina ceded its western territory to the US Government in 1787, it retained the right to grant lands in that territory until all of the revolutionary veterans had been paid. This caused a great deal of confusion in early Tennessee because both North Carolina and Tennessee were granting lands in th e same area. Tennessee would frequently nullify all North Carolina grants, North Carolina would complain and issue even more grants. Finally in 1806, Congress took over the whole operation and by the Act of 1806 and the enabling acts in Tennessee, some order was brought to the business.
The act of 1806 established the Congressional Reservation located south of Duck River and East of the Tennessee River, west of Winchester Military line running from Huntsville through Pulaski to Columbia, and north of the southern boundary of the state. All land west of the Tennessee river were included in this congressional reservation. The act stated that these congressional reservation lands were to be held in reserve until all the lands north and east of the line had been taken up and would be used only if the revolutionary war claims of North Carolina could not be satisfied by those lands north and east. The same act of 1806 also divided the land north and east of the reservation into 5 surveyors districts. Each district was laid off in ranges and sections with each section 5 miles square instead of the Jeffersonian I mile square. In 1819, the act was amended to take in the remainder of the state with and additional seven distr icts being created. Giles, Lawrence, Wayne and the part of Hardin Co., east of the Tennessee River, are part of the 7th and 8th surveyors districts, Hardin county west of the Tennessee is part of the 9th. These districts are not to be confused with the county civil districts which came into being with the state constitution of 1836. The surveyor's districts deal expressly with land, while the civil districts are a division of government.
The entry books recorded the original application for the land, indicating where it was generally and the amount and how it was purchased, either by military warrant, a certificate of purchase issued by the Register of the State or his subordinates, or by occupancy or preemption. Next the settler had to get the land surveyed. The entry taker issued a certificate to the settler who took it to the surveyor to have the land surveyed. The plat of the survey was recorded in a separate survey book. Both of these record books are very important because transfers of title were recorded in each which were not recorded anywhere else. They also will provide references to land which had been granted earlier but which does not appear anywhere in either the entry book or the s urveyors books, thus referencing you to an older book in an older county.
I don't need to go into detail on the deed books. If you have done any research in a courthouse anywhere, you know the importance of the deed records. But the registrars office will also have other records which might prove important. There are the lea se and mortgage records, records of oil, gas, coal and mineral rights to property, and also registers of military discharges from W.W.I and subsequent wars. There are also registrar's notebooks. These notebooks show the date a document was brought in fo r recording, the date it was recorded in the record books and the book and page number. Sometimes this may be the only record of a land transaction, especially if the clerk was negligent in actually recording the deed or for records during periods of war o r disaster. If an older book has been copied into a newer book, don't be afraid to ask to see the original. If it still exists it may contain information that was inadvertently left out of the transcription.
Now let's turn our attention to the County Court Clerk's or County Clerk's office. Generally you will find in this office, the minute books of the county court, marriage records, estate records, birth and death records between 1881 1883, 1908 and 1912 an d later, guardianship records, and various other county and inferior court records. Now in some cases the various records may now be under the jurisdiction of another office. General Sessions Court records are now in the Circuit Court Clerk's office and in some counties the estate records have been moved to the Clerk & Master's office of the Chancery Court. But will address those in turn.
Marriage records. How simple, get the license, get married and have the solemnized marriage recorded. Yes? No! In the nineteenth century and earlier, there was a little more to it and more records involved. Many counties in Tennessee still have their marriage bond books. These record books recorded the bond which was taken out by the groom to prove that he was going to marry the bride. The bond books also recorded the consent statements by parents when the parties where under the age of 21. Regretfully most of these bond record books have been lost through negligence and the passage of years. Once the bond was obtained and secured, and consent to marry given by parents or guardians, the groom would obtain a license and the couple would get married. Once the marriage had been solemnized the minister or the groom would return the license to have the minister's return recorded. Sometimes this was recorded in the bond book itself, while sometimes there was a separate book for recording the minister's returns. In Wayne County we have lost all our bond books before 1857 and the minister's return record before 1857. We still have some of the bond books before 1898, but a few are missing. We do have all our minister's return books. from 1857 to the present.
County Court minutes. The first legal records in a county in Tennessee will generally be the deeds and the county court minutes. The county court set up the county and the first court was appointed by the Governor. This court consisted of justices repr esenting various districts within the county, before 1836 they represented the militia districts; while after 1836 they were elected by Civil District. The county Court minutes record everything (supposedly) the court did in any given term. Here you wil l find the appointment of guardian to minors and those insane, appointment of administrators of estates and the presentation of wills for probate, the presentation of deeds for probate, (pre-1836), the records of petitions brought to sell estate lands and slaves and to divide land where the heirs could not agree on the division. The election of county officers, road overseer appointments, appointments to various committees and applications for admission to the poor farm. The county court generally oversaw all the legal operations of the county, outside of criminal cases. In some cases you will also find in the coun ty court records, the docket and record books of the various justices who made up the court. These JP records were the records of the legal proceedings handled by the JP in his district and if they survive, provide a more detailed insight into the every day life of the people. Here you will find the first records on murder cases, insanity proceedings, bastardy cases, and various misdemeanors and felonies. All of these cases could be brought before the JP and he could rule on them, either turning the case over th e Grand Jury or adjudicating the case in his own home. Regretfully most of the JP record books were never turned into the court or have been lost.
Wills, Inventories, Administrations and Settlements: These records were originally the jurisdiction of the County Court Clerk. Here will be recorded the administrator's appointments and executor's bonds, the inventories of the personal estate of the dece dent and the report of the sale of those personal properties, and in later books the actual settlement of the administrator or executor with the heirs. This settlement with the heirs did not become a part of the administrator's record until the 1890's. Prior to that time the settlements were either not recorded, or were recorded in another book.
Guardianship records: Here you will find the appointment of guardians of minor heirs of estates and their records of such guardianship. Sometimes the minors are named along with their deceased parent or grandparent, sometimes only the parent is named, wh ile other times only the heirs are named. These books tend to be missing from many courthouses due to negligence.
Cash Journals and Cash Dockets. For twenty years I never looked at these books. But when I finally did, I realized what I had missed. In the Cash Journals are recorded the receipts and disbursements made by the Clerk. Most of these receipts and disbur sements in the books for Wayne County relate specifically to the settlement of estates. Here was recorded the amounts received from the administrator/executor and the amounts paid to the named heirs, attorney's fees if any and court costs. Not all count ies have these records in the Clerk's office. You may need to do a little searching and ask some questions to find them. They generally are stored in basement or attic storerooms or in broom closets.
Now let's leave the County Clerk's office and address the Clerk and Masters office. The Clerk and Master is an appointed official of the Chancery Court, he or she is not elected by the people, although the Chancellor is. The Chancery Court is the Equity court in Tennessee designed to adjudicate those cases where the exact letter of the law is not clear. The Chancellor has a wide range of power in ruling on chancery cases. In the early years of the state the Chancery districts were widely scattered and there was not a separate clerk in each county.
The earliest Chancery court was established in Washington County in the 1770's and remained the only such court until Davidson County was established. Cases which would normally have been filed in Chancery court, would often be filed in either county cou rt or circuit court when the Chancery court was not located in the specific county. Or if a case were filed in Chancery, it may have been filed in another county. For Wayne County before 1840, bills in chancery could be filed in Charlotte, Dickson Count y, Jackson, Madison Co., or in Columbia, Maury County. In 1840 a Chancery Court was established in Lawrenceburg and in Savannah and Wayne County cases could be filed there or in any other chancery court in the state. It was not until 1848 that a chancer y court was established in Wayne Co.
In the Clerk and Master's office you will find the minute books which record the original bill presented in the case, along with all rulings relating to that case. Not all documents in a specific case will be recorded in the minute books however. Only t he Original bill and any amendments to the bill and all rulings will be recorded. Testimony given in a specific case will not be recorded, but will be found in the case file if it survives. There are also the docket books. One set of docket books record s the scheduling of the case, expenses of the case and the witnesses called. The Execution Docket book will record the deposition of the moneys in the case, to whom paid and their written receipt. In most cases the actual signatures are part of the exec ution docket book. When a Chancery bill involves an estate, the execution docket book can provide a wealth of information on the heirs and where they were living at the time of the settlement of the bill. If the loose records files survive, testimony in the case will be available. This can prove to be enlightening to the researching because dates will be mentio ned as well as relationships to other family members and people in the community. It is possible to find whole three and four generation genealogies in these loose papers. In many counties the Clerk and Master now has jurisdiction over the Wills, Settle ments and Inventories records as well as probate. It will be necessary on visiting the county where your ancestor lived, to determine where the records are kept. Some counties have not transferred to older records from the County Court Clerk office to t he Clerk and Master, while others have.
After 1854 the Chancery Court also handled all divorce cases in the state of Tennessee. Prior to 1854 only the state legislature could grant a divorce. These pre-1854 divorces have all been published. In many counties the loose records have been microfi lmed and catalogued. Some counties still retain these records in the courthouse while others have established special archives for all records prior to 1900.
The Circuit Court was the second court established in a county. Generally the Circuit court was established by the first meeting of the county court under appointment from the governor of the state. The Circuit Court is a criminal court and as such hear s all cases involving criminal law. But don't ignore the circuit court minute books simply because the court is a criminal court. In some cases, the circuit court as a legal court of record, also recorded applications for pension and bounty land benefit s, and in some cases following the civil war, they also recorded lawsuits brought involving estates, and in some cases, divorce proceedings where criminal law was involved. While it may not be very edifying to read that an ancestor was arrested and charg ed with tipping or larceny, it may be the only record of that ancestor in the country. No stone should be left unturned nor a record book page be left unread in the quest for our ancestors.
Criminal cases can sometimes lead to information on the disappearance of an ancestor. Many times, people charged or about to be charged with a crime would simply "go to Texas" to avoid prosecution. And records of conviction can lead to other sources of i nformation such as prison and convict records.
In addition to the minute books in Circuit Court, there are also docket books which show when a case was brought before the court, lists the names of people called as witnesses and the disposition of the case. There is generally a case number assigned in the docket book which will allow you to find the case papers if they still exist. The case papers can prove to be enlightening because transcripts of testimony will be filed therein. Regretfully, most loose circuit court records in many counties have been lost in time.
Many times an individual will be in a county only for a year or two, and then move on to greener pastures. If that individual didn't own any land in the county during his stay, there will probably not be any record of him in the registrar's office, unles s he witnessed a deed, but there will be a record of him in the Trustee's office.
The Trustee today is the officer of the court charged with collecting the public taxes and in maintaining the tax books, although in the past the County Court Clerk maintained the tax books and the sheriff was charged with collecting the taxes. These rec ords are generally the worst maintained of all county records since they are periodically retired to basements, attic and broom closets. But they are a valuable source of information. They will tell you if the individual owned land since he paid propert y tax, whether or not he was eligible to vote, since he would have to pay the poll tax, and may give some insight into his everyday existence if he paid taxes on cows, horses, machinery, carriages, and slaves. Tax records will also tell in some instances when an individual left the county or will indicate an approximate date of death.
Having looked at the major offices of the Courthouse, let's turn our attention to some less known office records. Prior to 1866 the schools in Tennessee were governed by the county court and were less than adequate. Few records except in the county cour t minutes survive from the pre-civil war period. But after the war, when the new state constitution was written and passed, a superintendent of education for each county was appointed by the county court and a school commission was also appointed to gove rn the schools in a county. The minutes of this commission, if available, coupled with the superintendent's annual reports can provide some information not found elsewhere in the courthouse. Again, many of the these records have been lost over time. Among the school records are the commission minutes, the school census records which recorded all children under the age or 18, and in some cases actual attendance records with the names of each student. Of all the school records, the school census records are the most important since they were done for years other than the decennial census years . I do not have a record of when the school censuses were taken, because those for Wayne County before the 1930's have been lost.
Some counties may also have the Poor Farm Commission and Poor Farm records. These can be especially valuable to those whose ancestors for whatever reason, petitioned the court for admission to the poor farm, were accepted and lived and died there. These records would normally be found in the County Court Clerk office if they sti ll exist. In most counties, these records do not survive.
In closing, let me remind you that Tennessee has a "sunshine law" which makes all government meetings and their records free and open to the public. Only those records, such as adoption records, certain insanity proceedings and grand jury records are clo sed and certain records as specified by the court. That means that all records, other than as stated above, are public records and are open to the general public. However, please remember that these records are for everyone's use. Over the last eighty to ninety years, many records have disappeared from courthouse storage areas and files because people wanted to have a copy of grandpa's handwriting.
Also remember that most county officials are there to serve the public, but their concerns are with their current constituents. Most are not interested in History or Genealogy. While they will go out of their way to help where they can, they cannot do l engthy researches. State law does require all inquiries to a public official about the records in his office to be answered within a certain number of days. If you do write to a clerk and do not hear from him or her, write again and refer to the former letter.
And finally, one last reminder. Most counties in Tennessee will no longer copy from the original record books. While Wayne County continues to make copies from the original records, Hardin County will not. Nor will Davidson County. The older books are deteriorating and in an age of budget constrains, there isn't enough money in the average county budget to rebind them. Since the majority of the record books have been microfilmed, most counties will refer you either to the State Archives to obtain a co py or the local county library which has on deposit all the microfilmed records of the county.
By Edgar D. Byler, III, 201 First Ave. N., Collinwood, TN 38450
Return to Hardin County, Tennessee Genealogy