Courthouse in St. Joseph, Missouri 
Can understanding the laws and court system of a locality really make a difference in our research? The answer is a resounding YES! As we move back in time, we come to rely more on the records created by the courts such as deeds, probate, guardianship, and more. Knowledge of these types of records helps us break down our brick wall research problems. Like every state, Missouri enacted laws and statutes that governed everything from divorce to name changes. Missouri also boasts a complicated court system because of the many jurisdictions that governed the area. Let’s look at the laws and courts that would have involved our ancestors and discover what type of records were created and how to find those records.
Understanding the Law
If we understand the laws that affected our ancestors we can better analyze the records. We need to know when and where a record was created in order to research the law behind the record. We may have found a hint that our ancestor was involved in a divorce case but if we don’t know what court handled divorce, we won’t know how to track down that record. The same is true for the many types of activities our ancestors needed formally recorded.
During the Colonial Era, the French and Spanish governments used Civil Law, which differed from the British Common Law practiced in the colonies on the eastern seaboard. The common records of marriages, succession (probate), and deeds are deemed “notarial records.”
When the United States acquired the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, the territory created fell under the U.S. federal system, based on common law. Upon statehood in 1821, the Missouri General Assembly began enacting public and private session laws.
Missouri Digital Heritage hosts Missouri Session Laws, 1824-Present. The collection is organized chronologically and includes a description of the laws, as shown in the screenshot below. Although the first volume is titled “1824, Missouri Session Laws, Volume 1, Part 1,” know that the full title of the book is Laws of Public and General Nature of the District of Louisiana of the Territory of Louisiana of the Territory of Missouri, and of the State of Missouri, up to the Year 1824. Volume 1 begins with the “Treaty between the United States of America and the French Republic,” so if you want to read the actual terms of the Louisiana Purchase, you can.
First, you’ll want to determine the year your ancestor lived in the Missouri area and select the appropriate volume. Then you can search within the volume using any search term. For example, if you want information about the laws governing marriage, you can enter the search term “marriage” and find multiple instances of the term. The first hit shown below describes the marriage law for 1806 when Missouri was part of Indiana Territory. Following the summary, a detailed description spells out the law for the time. The red highlighting shows exactly where the search term appears on the page. Remember, you are searching for information about the laws, so you won’t search for surnames. Instead search for terms like “marriage,” “probate,” or “taxes.” Also, you can search for locations such as counties or towns. Although the text is easy to read, a transcript appears under each image as well.
What do we learn from the law of 1806 concerning marriage? A male had to be seventeen and a female fourteen in order to be legally married. If they were under the age of twenty-one and eighteen, respectively, they needed the consent of their parents. A couple who were not residents of the district also needed the consent of parents. By researching the law, you’ll discover much more than that simple marriage bond or certificate can tell you about your ancestors.
Now that you have a resource for researching Missouri law, let’s discuss how to research records created by the courts. This requires good research skills and record keeping. Although some of the volumes may include an index, many may not. If you are doing a page-by-page reading of a court book, you’ll want to be sure that you are tracking your searches in a research log. Although that may sound tedious, reading through the court minutes for a county will give you an education on the community where your ancestor worked and raised a family. He may not be listed in the records, but perhaps his neighbor had many dealings with the courts giving you insight into your ancestor’s daily life. Here is a rundown on the types of court records:
– Dockets: These are bullet point entries, written case by case and can get you into the minutes where more information is described.
– Minutes: The minutes provide a day by day record of the court cases. The completeness of the records is based on the expectations of the judge and the clerk’s ability.
– Loose Papers/ Case Files / Court Files: If you’re luck, you might be able to access the actual documents filed in the case, but be warned that they don’t always exist.
Finding Missouri Court Records: Missouri State Archives
When you read of courthouse fires and record destruction, your first instinct may be to give up on the research. Instead, learn all you can about what records remain and where they are held. The Missouri State Archives holds over 69,000 rolls of microfilm for court records.
Click on your county of interest for a list of types of court cases and the dates. I’m currently researching my ancestor, John D. Isenhour, who arrived in Cape Girardeau County in the early 1820s and died in 1844. Are there any records I could search for him? Opening the 55-page PDF of available microfilm for the county, I saw the extent of the records.
Scrolling through the records, I noted the court and the type of records listed.
– Circuit Court: Case Files, both Civil and Criminal, Circuit Court Records, Docket Book, Minutes, Miscellaneous Files, Proceedings in Chancery, Territorial Court Cases, Territorial Court Records
– Court of Common Pleas: Administrative Bonds, Appraisements, Bonds, Common Plea Case Files, Common Pleas, Descendants & Guardianship, Letters of Administration & Testamentary, Wills
–County Clerk: Country Court Minutes, County Court Records, Territorial Records
– Justice of the Peace: Dockets, Files
– Probate Court: Appraisements, Bonds, Final Settlements, Guardianships, Inventories, Letters of Administration, Probate Case Files, Wills
Each listing contains the microfilm reel number needed for ordering the film, the title, subtitle, volume, scope and content, date of coverage, and a column that indicates whether the records are indexed.
C = consolidated index
N = no index
P = printed index
E= electronic index
Scrolling through the microfilm, I saw many titles of interest – some indexed – but many not. To access the indexed records, you can search the database on the Missouri Digital Heritage web page “Missouri’s Judicial Records.” Search by county, surname, date, or type of action/subject. You’ll then see a list of records with a case summary and record detail for each. What if your ancestor doesn’t appear in the index? Try searching for his family, friends, associates, and neighbors. That could give you an insight into the community.
For example, I have Isenhour ancestors in Cape Girardeau County, Missouri. Doing a search just for the surname found the following record for Frank Isenhour who was being charged with assault with intent to kill Andrew Broom. I don’t recognize the name of Frank Isenhour, but Scott County is just below Cape Girardeau County. Could he be a relative? Viewing the record detail gives me the information needed to request a copy of the records from the Missouri State Archives. I also know from viewing the listing of microfilmed, that many of the records that might mention my ancestor have not been indexed, so I have more avenues to research.
Finding Missouri Court Records: FamilySearch
FamilySearch has digitized many county court records and you can follow these steps to find them. Begin with the FamilySearch Catalog, place search. Type in the name of the county spelled correctly, and select from the dropdown menu. I was curious to see if I could find the record for Frank Isenhour, so searched for Scott County, Missouri, and saw that they did have court records for this time period. But which court – the Circuit or the Court of Common Pleas? The record details provided by the Missouri Digital Heritage had noted Circuit Court, so I could explore those records which are digitized.
Finding Missouri Court Records: Ancestry
Because probate records contain some of the most valuable genealogical information, we often start with those when researching the court records. Ancestry’s collection, Missouri, U.S., Wills and Probate Records, 1766-1988 is searchable through the index and by browsing by county. Be aware that generally only the deceased is indexed, not others mentioned in the will. For example, my ancestor, John Isenhouer, appears in a general search for “Isenhour,” but not the many children named in the will.
Courts by Jurisdiction
To navigate the maze of the Missouri court system, let’s look at a simple outline of the various courts.
You’re going to find your ancestor mentioned the most in the local courts where they registered deeds, served on juries, sued their neighbor for a debt, and more. You can look for your Missouri ancestors in the following courts, based on the time each existed and the scope of the case.
– Justice of the Peace Courts, 1805-1949: These were the earliest, starting with the Louisiana Purchase and continuing to 1945, when they were replaced with Magisterial Courts, then abolished. These heard small matters, then referred the cases up to the next level of courts. J.P’s were originally appointed by the governor, then began to be elected. They performed marriages and kept registers of the marriages. You have likely used many records that show a marriage performed by a J.P.
– County Courts of Common Pleas, 1805-1865: This court could hear either civil or criminal cases and has wide range of records types. A unique record that you might find for an African-American ancestor is a manumission, based on the law that a freed black needed a permit filed with the court to stay in the state.
– Circuit Courts, 1815-present: This court supervised the activities of the lower courts and was the only court that could deal with death penalty cases.
– County Probate Courts, 1875-1979: Probate records will appear in various courts at different times until the Probate Court was created in 1875.
-Chancery, 1820-1822: This short-lived court reviewed special cases such as land disputes or African American freedom suits. After 1822, these cases became part of the Circuit Courts.
– Court of Appeals, 1828-present: This intermediate court heard appeals from decisions in the Circuit Courts. Missouri Reports and Missouri Appeal Reports have been digitized by the Missouri State Archives and will be added to online collections soon. The three district divisions are: Western, Eastern, Southern.
– Supreme Court, 1805-present: The Missouri Supreme Court Historical Database on the Missouri State Archives website is a fascinating place to search for mention of your ancestor or his FAN club. All cases up to 1868 are indexed and abstracted and digital images available for some cases. For cases up to 1889, you can view a partial listing.
As in all record types, we must search each jurisdiction, and besides the county, district and state courts, the U.S. Federal Courts also heard cases and created records. The history for Missouri’s federal courts is complicated, with the Federal District Court and the Federal Circuit Court boundaries changing repeatedly. These records are available at the National Archives and Records Administration in Kansas City as part of Record Group 21, records of District Courts of the United States, 1685-1993. See Records of U.S. District and Other Courts in Missouri, 1831-1991. Records of interest include naturalization, Chinese exclusion cases, bankruptcy, and more.
As you can see, understanding the law and records created by the courts can prove beneficial in your family history research. Best of luck as you tackle digging deeper for your ancestor’s records!
- Bob Weston, St. Joseph Missouri Courthouse, photograph, Getty Images, licensed through Canva Pro.