County Records and Genealogy

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Within the counties are numerous records with genealogical information besides the ones we've discussed. Chances are, some of them have been filmed, although each county has many more records still in their original form. Before you head out to the county to check on these records, check the Family History Library catalog online at www.familysearch.org or at your nearest Family History Center to see what has been filmed for your county of interest. Always remember, however, that errors can occur, and that a filmed series may be incomplete.


Guardianship and orphan records are important to genealogists. They are usually found in the county probate court records. When a decedent left an estate that required administration or probate, and left minor children as heirs, the court appointed a guardian to act in the children's interests. Sometimes children in the same family had different guardians. The children may have been from different marriages, or there may have been so many children as to make it impractical for one person to care for them all. If you find a child selecting a guardian rather than the court assigning one, usually that child is over the age of 14 but under 21. Children older than 14 could legally make their own selection.

Pedigree Pitfalls

If you see the word “infant” in guardianship or other records, do not assume that the child is a baby. In law, an infant is any minor under the age of majority, usually 21 for males and 18 for females.

When you find the record of a guardian having been appointed or selected, don't stop there. Guardians appear in court records regularly, reporting on income and expenses in administering the affairs of their charges, or perhaps protesting the management of a farm or business in which the charge has an interest. When the child came of age, a final accounting was submitted to the court. If that record survives, it might provide more information on your ancestor.

If a child inherited property from a deceased mother, the father (or someone else) may have been appointed as guardian for the child's interests. The records created by a child inheriting from a deceased mother's estate can provide you with the maiden name of the mother. Someone might have petitioned to be guardian for children “entitled to distributive shares of the estate of their grandmother Catherine Carter by reason of the death of their mother Elizabeth Shimmin.” Now you have three generations—the children, their mother, their grandmother. And the petitioner is probably related, too.

Orphans, Apprentices, and the Poor

Orphans were not always children without parents. Sometimes they were children with one parent who could not support them. As with the other poor, the county often accepted responsibility for them. Orphans were sometimes sent to institutions: workhouses, almshouses, poorhouses, or asylums. Look for county records of the poor; these records are seldom microfilmed. Records of the institutions under some form of governmental jurisdiction may be at the county or state level. The records of privately run orphanages can be difficult to locate; they may be in historical societies, university libraries, or private collections, or they may no longer exist.

Poor children were often sent out by their parents as apprentices to learn a trade. A father without the means to provide for all his children might designate in his will that one or more of the children should be apprenticed to a specific trade. The master who took on an apprentice was usually obligated to feed, clothe, and educate the child until a certain age, and perhaps required to give him a suit of clothes, a small sum of money, and a Bible when released.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Genealogy © 2005 by Christine Rose and Kay Germain Ingalls. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.

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