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Indentured Servants, Apprentices, and Convicts: Finding Family Histories at the Library of Congress

Courthouse Records

You will probably want to search local (city, county, region or state) records for traces of your ancestors. The Library of Congress has copies of published transcripts, abstracts, and lists from many church and government records.

The best way to locate these resources is by searching the Library of Congress Online Catalog.

  • Go to the catalog and select the Browse option.
  • From the pull-down menu, select "SUBJECTS containing"
  • Type in the name of the county and the state to produce a list of titles about that location.

Alternatively, use the "Keyword" function to enter any words that describe the location or type of records that interest you. Click on any title to see a detailed bibliographic record and to request any items from the stacks. You may request books from the Library of Congress collections one or two days before your visit, or on the same day if you will be staying in the Library for research. Most retrievals take about an hour, although some take longer because the materials are stored offsite (which is noted in their catalog records). There is no limit to the number of books you can request, but plan for the time you have and how you want to spend it.

Types of Courthouse Records and How to Find Them

Here is a list of the kinds of records you might find at a county courthouse. Classification and collections differ between jurisdictions.

  • Court Proceedings – Disputes were settled in court and records kept. You can look for your ancestors' names and the names of their associates to find out what was important to them and what businesses they were involved in.
  • Guardianship Records – Minor children could be assigned to a guardian upon orphanhood, and that guardian could apprentice the child or bind him or her out to another.
  • Land Records – When an individual finished an apprenticeship, sentence, or servitude, he could then begin to acquire property and influence. Land records can establish relationships and give you an idea of exactly where someone lived and how they prospered.
  • Orphans' Court – Depending on the jurisdiction, these records might not be limited to guardianships or estates, but could be a rich source of information about families, individuals, and associates.
  • Probate Records – These includes wills and the settlement of estates Sometimes a childless couple would leave their estate to an apprentice or indentured servant. These are good documents to establish relationships.
  • Tax Records – These are often a good indicator of prosperity and status, as well as helping trace locations..
  • Vital Records – Sometimes the local clerk recorded births, marriages, and deaths. These records might show up in deed books or specially dedicated volumes. The dates when such records were required vary by county and state.

Here are a few tips for searching courthouse records.

  • Remember to look for these records in the archives and courthouses of the places where your ancestors lived and in neighboring counties and jurisdictions. If the courthouse records were transcribed, abstracted, and published, the Library of Congress may have acquired a copy of that publication. If you think you know the county where your indentured ancestor lived, double-check to see if the county boundaries have changed and if the records are kept at a state archive or in another county.
  • Also, be aware that the spelling or version of your ancestors' names may vary depending on who the recording officer was and what kind of education he had. Names may appear in a Latin, French, or German version, or simply spelled as the recorder heard or interpreted the name. Collecting additional documents can help to verify the identity of the person mentioned.
  • Sometimes the terms "apprenticeship" and "indenture" were used interchangeably. In many courthouses you can find indentures from agreements made for children by their parents or guardians, either for service or apprenticeship. Some infants were bound out for later service so the family could have the money.
  • Depending on the availability of paper and books, entries may have been made in several different subject books. If possible, look at all the books from a given location for addenda and notes.
  • Some counties in the U.S. have digitized their court records, and you can search them online. The free database has collected more images than have been indexed. You can still browse through those images to look for evidence of your ancestors. Create a personal account to gain access to all the images, click the "search" button, and select "images" from the drop-down menu. Search by location.

Recommended Reading

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.